One of the first set of words we teach our children is “thank you.” This simple phrase is a cornerstone of decent, civilized, and socially necessary human interaction and communication. Implied in this term is the expression to others of feeling grateful for having received something of value from another human being, from a door being held open when entering a room to being the recipient of a multi-million dollar gift.
Yet, while the words can be heard everywhere, the deeper impact of gratefulness on our lives, its transformative power as a means of greater well-being, happiness, and spiritual development, is lost or ignored.
A “gratefulness” turning point in my life was unexpectedly arrived at during a meditation retreat at Elat Chayyim, a center for Jewish spirituality in Connecticut. The five-day retreat was designed to engage rabbis and other Jewish community in mindfulness meditation. Each day was devoted to sitting and walking meditations and was spent in silence (no easy task for a group of rabbis). Participants had no contact with the outside world. The only exception was to ask our teachers questions and articulate concerns during individual mentoring evaluations.
It was the third night of the retreat. I was unable to sleep; I was restless with numbness – my heart and mind were blocked of any genuine emotion and connection. All I could sense was the emptiness of isolation. In the middle of the night, not having slept, I made my way into the cool night and began to jog. It was a moonless night, and it felt as if I were running on faith, unable to see much of the road ahead of me. Yet I persisted, pushing my way into the dark, cold, night air. About a half hour had elapsed and I gratefully began to feel fatigue floating into my body. I headed back to the sleeping quarters, and was graced with the gift of several hours of restful sleep.
That morning, during the day’s first sitting meditation, I focused upon the first Jewish prayer upon awakening, “Modeh Ani” – “I thank you” (for waking up another morning). I then proceeded to recite the formal morning prayers wearing a tallit and tefillin. I stepped over to a corner of the large meditation room, placed the tallit over my head, and suddenly, without warning, was gripped by a torrent of uncontrolled sobbing. It was as if floodgates of feeling that had been dammed up in my heart had suddenly burst open and, for what seemed like an eternity, my body heaved with the eruption of tears and feelings that seemed to have sprung from the deepest wellsprings of my soul. I couldn’t stop. As I wept, all I could feel was the sensation of being thankful, and I repeated to myself, over and over again, “thank you, thank you, God” – “Modeh Ani lefanehcha,” “I am thankful before You.”
I was not grateful for anything specific, but simply for being alive, for being blessed with a heart that was finally open and receptive to feeling fully alive and fully conscious, that somewhere there was something, something intimate and indispensable for the fullness of my life, something to which or to whom I was profoundly grateful.
This time the words of the prayer became a living, genuine reality. No matter how brief and temporary it was, in those few moments, I understood the meaning of prayer.
Judaism mandates gratefulness as a fundamental spiritual perspective. Our prayers are saturated with praise, simply because the purpose of prayer is not to request as much as to remember to be grateful.
The ethnic reality of many Jews calls to our attention how difficult it is for us to maintain an attitude of gratitude. We somehow feel more comfortable when we kvetch than when we sincerely feel grateful. This pattern of feeling and thinking dates back to the Torah. The wilderness generation found it virtually impossible to be grateful. Instead they griped, complained, and murmured incessantly, a way of relating to life that God found most unacceptable and undesirable. It is no accident that a well-known Yiddish saying declares: “A chissoron, di kallah iz tsu shain” (“A fault-finder complains even that the bride is too pretty”).
Centuries of persecution, suffering, and uncertainty only exacerbated Jewish ingratitude, closing our hearts to the spiritual capacity to thank in order to become more fulfilled and complete as Jews and human beings in the eyes of God and the world.
Ingratitude is not a Jewish monopoly. From Shakespeare to the 18th-century philosophers, ingratitude was considered a disastrous moral failing. David Hume states, quite dramatically, “Of all crimes that human beings are capable of committing, the most horrid and unnatural is ingratitude.”
Studies indicate that daily gratitude exercises result in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. Additionally, those who live their lives more gratefully experience less depression and stress, make more progress toward personal goals, and are more compassionate toward others.
People who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved. Gratitude encourages a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people, since one act of gratitude encourages another.
Although gratitude is a substantial part of most religions, benefits extend to the general population, regardless of religious faith or lack thereof.
Gratefulness is the thread that can tie people together of all religious persuasions and act as a bond of common connection and unity.
In our fractured and fragmented world, gratefulness is imperative for the survival of us all.