by Jacob Bruggeman
As many of us are brought up, we are told again and again that there is always something to be grateful for, that gratitude is a cornerstone of any life well-lived, and that being grateful is the first step along a lifelong road to joy and purpose. It’s interesting, then, that Gratitude is so clearly avoided by men and women of all ages–most commonly so among the young. Kept out of thought and away from the heart by youth’s impermeable miasma of misgivings—“my parents are lame,” “this town is too small,” and “I just want to get out of here”—gratitude, or what in our youth may seem to be an obscure tendency toward thankfulness, lingers about. It circles the soul as it grows and bends away from its beginnings, and mellows into its early and middle years.
The young may well encounter gratitude at moments, embrace it and let its gravity guide their actions—but gratitude can be quickly forgotten. Just as children scream for puppies, promising to care for and clean up after them, to play with them every evening, later only entertaining them for short surges of puppy-love, the young amuse themselves with gratitude on a whim. It is the parents, caregivers, or older siblings, who are tasked to care for the pups, like children, and guide them from immaturity to adulthood. Yet, adults too forget to feed their house pets, forget to let them out in the evenings, sometimes leaving them alone for a great while when other responsibilities call them away from home. Despite our maturity, we can only ever be imperfectly grateful; thankfulness, after all, can be quite fleeting.
Gratitude has guided the life and work of David Steindl-Rast, a brilliant theologian, public intellectual, and founder of A Network for Grateful Living, whose work calls humanity toward a more serious state of self-reflection and contemplative gratitude. I recently listened to an episode of Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast in which Steindl-Rast recounts his lifelong dedication to defining and spreading a sense of gratefulness in the modern world. Be it through his public writings or A Network for Grateful Living (an online platform devoted to sharing online educational programs with the public, and to inspiring grateful living), Steindl-Rast is serious about spreading gratefulness and practices of thanksgiving to all people. For him, “when people are grateful, they come alive.”
After listening to this episode of “On Being,” I embarked on an inward search for instances in which I’ve been close to completely grateful, immersed in a moment of overwhelming thanksgiving. I was initially surprised by the number of scenes I remembered, but I almost immediately realized that a few dozen memories—however heavy the weight of inspired reverie—are but a fraction of my lived experiences, a single painting in a portrait gallery. Thinking through and attempting to relive my memories of “being grateful” transported me to a state of profound awe at the power of gratitude to define a moment—and perhaps a life.
In these memories, gratitude was neither self-imposed nor conjured up; it was there, encircling me, forcing me to bear witness to the raw beauty of human love and connection, but also to cruelty and suffering. I cannot know nor can I describe the anatomy of gratitude (and anyway, “what is it?” is not a question to ask of emotions). I can only say, thankfully, that those memories of “being grateful” graft a certain meaning onto moments that otherwise might have slipped into meaninglessness, and that the orientation toward gratefulness to which Steindl-Rast prods us is truly a higher calling.
Jacob Bruggeman is a junior at Miami University studying history, political science, art, and English literature.