my gratitude problem

Friends — Looking towards the USA celebration of Thanksgiving tomorrow, there has been a gradual build-up in gratitude practices on social media and elsewhere. In my Jewish spirituality learning group – called a chavruta – we’ve been talking about it too. In that group I admitted something embarrassing: this gratitude stuff grates on me. It makes me just a little crazy.

Talking with my learning partners, I realized that my problem with gratitude, stems from the grace that I learned in church and that my father or I said at the table: “for what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful.”

There’s nothing wrong with this prayer. The problem is how it was pronounced in my family in comparison with how it was – or better wasn’t – practiced.

Neither of my parents were grateful people. They had many sterling qualities, but gratitude was not one of them. My mom was an atheist, and my dad, the religious one in the family, was not a grateful man, but rather an extremely angry and depressed one. The way he growled the forgoing prayer, and then proceeded to rage or move depressedly through his day, has I think tainted the notion of gratitude as something you’d better goddamn well feel (to misquote him) or else. But it’s an angry obligation and a burden, not a joy. Under such circumstances, the emphasis on “truly”, as one member of my chavruta observed, became a bit scary. It pointed to an overriding concern with sincerity. Are you TRULY grateful? And of course, my parents weren’t sincere, so the prayer became a strange exercise in the opposite of what it was asking for.

In fact, as a kid, I didn’t know any grateful people, except for my maternal grandmother, after whom I am named. She did seem perpetually grateful, although she would never have put it that way. Another way to put it is, happy.

So, what to do with my gratitude problem? One of the many pleasures of having converted to Judaism, is encountering a completely different array of prayers whose attitude marks a different set of emotions and obligations. In Judaism, if you eat bread, you say a “blessing” and wash your hands beforehand (watch for my essay on this practice coming out with Redshift), but the equivalent of “Grace” comes after the meal, and is indeed a set of blessings aimed at how amazing G-d is, rather than at how the congregants may or may not feel.

First of all, note the practicality. Judaism seems to get that most people are going to be more likely to be grateful AFTER they’ve eaten a delicious meal, than before. To feel physically nourished and satisfied – by the meal and by the company – is certainly a smart set up for an extensive prayer session – which the full set of blessings is. It’s long, especially when compared to the terse prayer I mentioned at the start of this essay. Here’s the whole text in Hebrew and English:

But there’s another time where you are – in Judaism – supposed to express some recognition of the gift of your life. And that’s when you wake up. These prayers are historically problematic (in one, you thank G-d, for not making you a woman [if you’re a man]). Ok, that one is not so great. But as Rabbi Jill Zimmerman has pointed out, the gesture – the being called to awareness that you get to wake up, and see, and hear, and get out of bed and stand up (hopefully) – is itself a spiritual practice. I can get behind that.

The idea of gratitude as an awareness of being alive in the moment is an idea I understand and appreciate. Truly.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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