It all comes back to love.
Gratitude does, like everything else that is good in the world.
Thomas Merton writes that gratitude “takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder….” His subject is the relationship that human beings share with God, but he could just as well be talking about the relationship that two people share when they love each other.
Indeed, he’s talking about love of all sorts.
Wonder — and gratitude
Young lovers can’t get enough of each other. They want to be together all the time, share every experience, know everything there is to know about the beloved. They are intensely aware of the goodness and richness in the loved one — the humor, the compassion, the beauty, the intelligence, the sweetness.
They can’t help but feel wonder — and gratitude.
And the imperfections of the loved one? These are recognized, of course. He may be moody or lazy or, well, a little overweight. She may be a couch potato or high-strung or spend too much on clothes.
Knowing each other so well and learning more and more each day, the lovers can’t ignore these imperfections. They can’t pretend they don’t exist. Indeed, these flaws will lead to friction and to anger, fights and tears. But, as the song says, “It’s all in the game.”
The song — which, by the way, was co-written by Charles Dawes, a Chicago banker who became Vice President of the United States — talks about the spats that two lovers are bound to have:
Once in a while, he won’t call, but it’s all in the game.
Soon he’ll be there by your side with a small bouquet.
And he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips
And your heart will fly away.
Working at love
Of course, young love matures. The initial wonder and delight are too intense to last forever. Life together falls into a routine. And this is a time when love can wither.
The relationship won’t grow on its own. It needs to be nurtured by each lover. If one partner crawls into a shell, forget it; the love will shrivel. But, if both work at love, it will blossom.
Working at love is a choice the lovers have to make, and it involves many things, such as coping with the imperfections that, during the courtship, were minor irritations. In a long life together, those irritations can become major stumbling blocks. And they will be unless the lovers keep themselves open to the richness of the other — unless, in other words, they keep in mind all they have to be grateful for.
The flipside of this is the recognition on the part of the lovers of their own imperfections. All of us are flawed. All of us do selfish things, say mean words. If we look at ourselves with honest eyes, we can only be humble.
How much we owe
And we can’t help but realize how much we owe those who love us. With all our scars, twists, tics and errors, they still hold us in their hearts. We can’t help but be thankful.
It’s the same between a parent and a child. A newborn baby fills everyone around her with unalloyed affection and delight. But, when that baby has grown into a teenager, she’s going to bang heads with her parents. It’s her job, in a way. It’s what she needs to do in the process of growing into her own person.
That can be destructive to a family. It won’t be, though, if it’s counter-balanced by an awareness — on the part of the teen and of her parents — of the good, rich life they have shared. Of how, in spite of each other’s flaws, they have loved and cherished each other.
There will still be anger over disagreements, but it won’t be overwhelming. As aggravated as you may be, you can’t write off someone who has brought so much happiness, peace and acceptance to your life.
An act of will
But this is where the work comes in, whether between two lovers or between a parent and a child or between one friend and another — or between us and God.
It takes an act of the will, a decision, to keep in mind these good gifts from the other — to be grateful.
Unfortunately, there is much in our human hard-wiring that leads us to want to look at the negative. So looking at the good, at the positive, is something we have to decide to do.
And it’s not something you do for a day or a month. It’s the work of a lifetime.
Looking at the good
The pay-off of looking at the good — of being grateful for the good — is a life in which we’re constantly aware of the richness and beauty that we’ve been given. It’s a frame of mind with which to view the world.
Rather than dwelling over-long on the bus we missed or the job we failed to get, we are open enough to look at the world with wonder and awe — to note the color of the rising sun on the red bricks of the building across the street or take in the smell of new mown grass or recognize the look of affection in a friend’s eye.
At the heart of this way of experiencing the world is our relationship with God — our love affair with God.
The love we share with God, like any other love, requires us to open and responsive to the goodness and richness that God brings into our lives. And, after all, as Merton notes, everything we have — from the air we breathe to the talent we’re born with — comes from God.
As imperfect as we are, God still loves us. Like any love, it’s a mystery. And it’s a wonder.
And the more we recognize that wonder — the more we realize just how much we have to be thankful for — the deeper will be the love we share with God.
And the happier our lives will be.
Patrick T. Reardon
This essay was originally published in the June, 2016 issue of Reality magazine in Ireland.