I have a confession:
I am tired of hearing about gratitude.
I know many people have a daily practice where they write down three to five things they are grateful for, and I believe it when they tell me that it works magic for them. The daily gratitude list is so widespread that many planners include a space to note it, including my beloved Week Dominator.
I am not a fan of the gratitude list.
I am grateful everyday to see my child’s face and to feel my husband’s arms around me, not to mention the roof over my head and the food in my pantry when so many are hungry. But you can’t enforce gratitude.
Natalie Goldberg teaches that gratitude is the most mature emotion. I believe it is born out of heartache and suffering. Like happiness, gratitude rises when you least expect it, the result of being present to all that is, including the dark stuff. During my last intensive with Natalie, we read several thick volumes about the atrocities inflicted on Africans over the last two centuries — by white men and by each other. Slave trade and torture, tribal warfare. She didn’t even give us the worst of horrors to read. It was enough to understand in her words, “what human beings were capable of doing to one another.”
This is our job: on the one hand, to stand in awe at the bark peeling from a sycamore tree in the fall, the clean layers of white giving way to olive greens and brown. On the other, to see and smell the homeless man standing at the highway intersection and understand, as best we can from our privileged position, that he is cold and hungry and suffering. Even if we don’t write about the dark aspects of humanity, when we know it and face it, it is underneath our work and informs everything it.
I recently discovered this passage by Leonard Cohen about his classic song, “Hallelujah.”
This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name… The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, ‘Look, I don’t understand a f**king thing at all – Hallelujah!’ That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings.
I believe that broken Hallelujah, the one that comes out the muck of human existence, is the deepest gratitude that exists. It comes out of our own suffering, from seeing the homeless man with his dirty hair and clothes, from the horrors we inflict on one another in war. To face all of that and at the same time, come upon a crack in a cliff, feel your heart split open, and feel gratitude rise from below.
I’m going out on a limb and suggesting we put away the gratitude lists and get present to what is happening in this world, to our earth, to our neighbors, to the underprivileged and the oppressed. To not skip over what is hard and horrible in this life. In the words of my friend, Beth Howard, we are big enough to hold it all. As artists and writers, it is our sacred responsibility.