Tuesday 28 August 2018

Gratitude: The gift of the night

Whenever I hear someone speak of gratitude a phrase always comes to mind. Seven simple words awaken in my heart, my mind and my soul; the seven are “gratitude is a gift of the night”. The phrase is a slight misquotation of a principle put forward by Eli Wiesel. I know this as a while ago the following quotation appeared on my facebook feed:

“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.” Elie Wiesel

Sowhile I misquoted Wiesel I had grasped the principle.

The point he made is that gratitude is not something that comes from the wonderful gifts we are given, including life itself. It is often not something that is expressed by someone who has the whole world, as it seems that the whole world is still not enough. It is said that when Alexander the Great had conquered the whole known world that he wept as there was nothing else to conquer. He had the world and it was not enough. He died soon afterwards. Or so I remember once being taught in a history lesson back in school.

The idea that gratitude is a gift of the night comes from the sense that it comes not from being given things or even gaining things but truly learning about the value of what makes up our lives. It comes from almost losing everything and somehow surviving and learning to appreciate what is left after the dark night of our souls. It is important to note that Wiesel wrote “The Night”, is seminal work, reflecting on his own survival of the Holocaust. He certainly knew what it meant to experience the night.

This brings to mind a story a friend once posted on facebook.

A grandmother was walking with her 5 year old grandson on the beach, when suddenly a rogue wave came and grabbed him and carried him out to sea. She looked up to the sky, held out her fist and cried "God, this is unacceptable, unbearable. You cannot take an innocent child" and just as the words came out of her mouth, another rogue wave came and deposited the child smiling back at her feet. She then picked up the child in her arms, looked up to sky and said, "This child had a hat!"

We really are a funny lot. We focus and complain about the things we don't have or the things that we once had and have now lost. So much so that we fail to see the very fruits that we are surrounded by. We are an ungrateful lot. We can be a real glum lot.

Most of us are ungrateful; most of us practice being ungrateful. It's almost become a religious ritual in itself. We moan and complain about our imperfect jobs, our imperfect bodies, our imperfect family, our imperfect relationships, our imperfect religious communities, our imperfect football teams, our imperfect life, our imperfect world, even our imperfect God who doesn't give us exactly what we want when we want it.

This joylessness can become habitual and all consuming so that pretty soon life can look pretty bleak and empty. Is it any wonder that depression, mental illness and addiction are on the increase? If this is the view that we have of the world in which we live. We can be a glum lot. The problem with living an ungrateful life is that it eats away at everything that has any meaning. Until in the end life has no meaning.

Can you ever imagine wanting to spend time with or be near a person who has no sense of gratitude for life as a gift, a precious gift; the kind of person who only sees life purely as his or her personal entitlement that must be grabbed at and clung to.

If these things are lost there where is the value in our lives?

Where do you find value in your life?

I recently went to see the film “Generation Wealth” by Lauren Greenfield. The film is a truly depicts our growing obsession with wealth, by weaving images shot over her twenty five year career as a photo journalist. It narrates the story of a nation and wider world through sharing the stories of individual lives. It begins in Los Angeles spreading to Moscow, China, Iceland, Dubai and Europe exploring materialism, celebrity-culture and social status throughout the world. Greenfield powerfully bears witness to the global boom-and-bust economy that began in the 1980’s and has carried on into today documenting its complicated consequences that we now live with.

The film tells stories of ordinary people and families who become overwhelmed by crushing debt in the pursuit of buying a life or lifestyle for themselves and or their children. It depicts some who rose to extreme wealth and then lost it all due to the crash of 2008. It also depicts the lives of the elite whether in Bel-air, Moscow, Monaco or China. It depicts this overwhelming desire for wealth, fame and or status at all costs.

Greenfield does not spare herself and or family in her critique. For while she and her parents may not have been driven by the desire for wealth they were driven by the desire to succeed in their careers often at the cost of themselves and their families.

It is the personal stories that make the film. They are disturbing and harrowing. It shows some of the rich youngsters driven by search for fame in LA and the horrific consequences that followed for many. There is the story of bus driver who hated her body so much she went into horrific debt to have years of plastic surgery. She ended up living in a car and her poor daughter hated herself and own appearance so much that she ended up deforming herself and eventually taking her own life. The story of a business woman so desperately wanting a child, who for most of her life was driven by the desire for success and power. A Las Vegas party organiser who dragged her poor son through the lifestyle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more damaged individual in my life. A couple who dreamed of building the biggest home in America. A former child beauty pageant winner and so many more. And there standing in the middle of it all is the image of Donald Trump becoming the president of the USA.

The film was a distressing and disturbing documentary about the destructive nature of the power of mammon. That said it did end in hope. As it showed an alternative and the many of lives actually finding love and meaning, finding gratitude for the simple and important things in their lives. This came as they returned home or began to build ordinary simple families as they saw and experienced the things of real value in life. It showed that love can grow when we step out once again from the kingdom of the night.

To repeat Wiesel

“No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.” Elie Wiesel

So the question perhaps is how we find that sense of gratitude for the gifts that are our lives? There are spiritual practices that do help to focus on what we have, to love what it is ours. In my nightly prayers, for part of the time, I focus on the gifts that I have experienced that day. I also take time to look at the beauty that I'm surrounded by, whether it's the bustling crowds in town or the beauty of nature. Beauty in ordinary everyday life comes in many guises.

That said I'm not convinced that this is enough. Religious faith, for me, is all about action and this action is frequently ignited by life's trials. These events can often be painful and almost utterly destructive. In my experience gratitude emerges from what has been called the "dark night of the soul". My own life experiences have proven this to me.

I’m with Eli Wiesel that gratitude and appreciation for the lives we have and the love we share only truly emerges from the night, when we have lost virtually everything. Just as so many of those people in “Generation Wealth” discovered too.

Gratitude is not about the things we do or do not receive; it is about being in relationship. It is about being in relationship with ourselves, the life we have, the people we share it with, the planet we inhabit and the universe we are a small but vital part of. It is also about being in relationship with whatever we understand is at the core of this. For me this is God, others understand this differently or give it another name. What we name it is almost irrelevant. What is really important is how we respond to this mystery that is life. All of us can pray for a grateful heart, for the gift that is life itself and for the opportunities that life offers to us. And if we fall many times, this is not the end.

The truth is that no matter how far we wander, or how often we stumble, love can find and bless us, if we are open enough to receive it.

That said sometimes we only really begin to appreciate the grace present in life after we have come through the kingdom of the night.

Sometimes it is only then that we begin appreciate the gifts that are present in our lives, Sometimes it is only when “We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering” and in so doing we can begin to learn to share them with those who we share our lives with.