Saturday, November 26, 2005


I recently happened upon a ‘guided, interactive ritual’ on the web (thanks, Maggi). Ghastly jargon, good concept. It involves lighting a virtual candle as part of a flickering, global community of people who have decided – for a few minutes, at least – not to curse the darkness, but to signal hope. And its URL is ‘gratefulness’. A suitable gesture, along with gift-giving, for Buy Nothing Day. Which is today, in case you hadn’t noticed.

Earlier this week I overheard a conversation between two people at a bus stop. One was telling the other how tiresome she used to find it when, as a child, she was made to write little formulaic ‘thank you’ notes by her parents whenever someone gave her a present. Her friend agreed. They concluded that it was liberating to be freed from such meaningless gestures by ‘our more modern attitudes’. A minute-or-so later, both parties were cursing a young kid who had skateboarded past them and nearly knocked one of them over. When the other shouted at him to ‘mind where you’re going’, his blunt reply indicated that he too had been ‘liberated’ from any sense of formulaic obligation.

Gratitude is something I too was reared on. My father was one of the world’s great exponents on the thank-you note, and by comparison I have always felt inadequate on this front. Too many thoughtful gestures, too little time. Being quietly competitive, I guess I knew I was staring defeat in the face! But to him such gestures came naturally because he had cultivated a sense of gratefulness as a habit, a virtue to be shared. A man whose life was frequently marked by seemingly indelible pain and darkness, his frequent litany that “there is so much to be thankful for” was much more than an acquired denial – even though it could sometimes sound hollow to those (like me) of a more cynical bent.

What would it be like to view the life-world we inhabit as a gift and all human beings as “mysteries to be loved” (T.S. Eliot)? To live spiritually, whatever our ‘beliefs’, is precisely this, it seems to me. It is part of what enables us to resist the temptation of despoilation, to disarm the culture of threat, to honour those for whom the gift has died or is disfigured, and to discover in the grit of the other something in ourselves and them which has to be embraced rather than denied. This is a political as well as a personal challenge, and it needs schools of thankfulness (communities of example) to help us live this way. It requires what Brett Webb-Mitchell has called ‘the instilling of Christly gestures.’ By this ‘formulaic’ means we discover, slowly and not always easily, that we do not have to become over-dependent on ‘reasons to be grateful’. Gratitude receives the world it gives.

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