For what are you thankful?
In this time in which we live, this question of thankfulness has been voiced as, “How do we feel gratitude in a time when we are faced with so much uncertainty and heart-break?” I turn to the wise teachers David Steindl-Rast and Parker Palmer, both of whom are in their 90s and who formed gratefulness.org and the Center for Courage and Renewal respectively; they provide help in answering this question. They help us see that attitudes of thankfulness can come to the fore to guide us in living whole lives of courage and grace.
In the latest e-newsletter from the Center for Courage and Renewal, Parker Palmer quoted the poem “Autumn” by Rainer Maria Rilke:
The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
As if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”
And tonight, the heavy earth is falling
Away from all other stars in the loneliness.
We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.
And yet there is Someone, whose hands
Infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.
Parker Palmer goes on to write:
In this poem, Rilke takes a deep dive into melancholy, then surfaces in a place of hope. Given all the “falling” of 2020—all the kin who’ve had to say “it’s over,” all the loneliness we’ve known—I’ll follow anyone who lives into hope without blinking hard truths about how we got here and what’s required to set things right.
That’s what Rilke does for me in this poem, as long as I understand this: the hands that appear in the last line “holding up all this falling” are OUR hands. There’s no magic trick here, no cosmic sleight-of-hand here. This is about US.
If we allow 2020’s death and loneliness to animate us to care for ALL our kin—and for the natural world on which we depend—then what has fallen to the ground among us will seed the flowering of new life. Fail at that task and 2020 will never end.
I don’t usually quote a whole piece that comes in an email, but I thought there was something important for us to hear from this wise Quaker, Parker Palmer, whose thoughts and writings have mentored me for many years. Maybe more to the point, I thought there was something I needed to hear.
David Steindl-Rast has given this hope, as Parker Palmer calls it, a lot of wise thought, also. For David Steindl-Rast, hope takes the shape of gratitude. But for Steindl-Rast, it isn’t a thinking gratitude—it isn’t so much a conscious thanking when we receive something. It is the spontaneous moment between an event happening and our conscious thought. It is more related to a feeling of awe and mysticism—that heartfelt sense that comes when we experience something beyond ourselves. And it is something we can train our minds and souls to do—this gratitude/awe response.
What Parker Palmer and David Steindl-Rast help us do is to be surprised by joy and awe and to live more fully from these heart-places. I’ve had discussions with people who argue that this perspective of awe, gratitude, and hope is just Pollyannaish, pie-in-the-sky thinking; they argue that the real world is winner-takes-all and the survival of the fittest. (Interestingly, that isn’t even how evolution works. Evolution is far more nuanced than that and isn’t about the survival of the fittest; it is more about adapting to change.)
Joy and awe are fundamental human expressions that define our humanity and our care for one another. So much of what we are witnessing in the world today—racism, fear, authoritarian dictators, climate catastrophe—means that some people double-down on exclusion and oppression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We, instead, can double-down on hope, love and compassion. We can double-down on awe, joy and gratitude. We can step outside of our fear-based thinking and let that spark of awe, that spark of love, that spark of hope that comes in a surprising or every-day moment open in us a way of building community, a way of gracious living, a way of compassion and hope.
Mystics have been telling us this for years, that we can change our heart-thinking. This struggle to change seems ever thus, though, as Jesus learned again and again. Jesus spoke from this mystical place of awe, hope, joy and love and invited others to join him there. But too many chose fear and chaos instead. Of the 10 lepers, for example, only one returned to say thanks. What of the other 9? I like to think that they got way-laid trying to return to say thanks, but who knows?
As a follower of Jesus’ way of non-violence, hope and mystical joy, David Steindl-Rast once wrote,
“Violence has its roots in every heart. It is within my own heart that I must recognize fear, agitation, coldness, alienation, blind anger and the impulse to retaliation. Here, in my heart, I can turn fear into courageous trust, agitation into stillness, confusion into clarity, isolation into a sense of belonging, alienation into love, and irrational reaction into Common Sense.”
The turning that David writes about is this mystical moment of awe—of gratitude. It can become the way in which we are in the world, a life-giving way of love and hope.
So, of what are we thankful? Maybe that isn’t the question; maybe the question is more about how we cultivate a gracious, thankful living that animates all aspects of our lives. Maybe this Thanksgiving, when we are expressing thanks for loved ones and some of the things we have, maybe we can speak of shifting to a new way of being where re-orient ourselves to that moment between experience and thought: of sheer awe, sheer joy, sheer hope, sheer love. Maybe we can shift to living from a place of gratitude and thankfulness all the time. May it be so for us and our world.
 Please go to https://centerforcouragerenewal.salsalabs.org/encouragementseptember2020?wvpId=5cdb9846-43e6-4cef-a3ae-b3ca4d490843.
 David Steindl-Rast, “A Vision for the World: Five small gestures of gratefulness to counteract violence,” published on the gratefulness.org website.