By tradition a Jew begins every day with the two words “modeh ani“. Basically this means “I acknowledge and thank God for giving me the gift of life once again today”. Fundamentally, the Jewish notion of gratitude; even in the midst of obstacles, problems, and difficulties; is intended to make life more bearable in the face of so much we don’t understand. Gratitude breeds optimism. Optimism (which I am well known to often lack myself – but not for lack of trying) makes life easier. The question is to whom we should be grateful and the most obvious answer may well be “God”. This would lead to the conclusion that, without God, there can be no gratitude. But wait…
Does Judaism really teach that you can only be grateful to God? If we consider the possibility that everything is part of God, sure. But, that’s a recursive argument because if God is everything, then being grateful to God is just being grateful to everything. Where’s the incremental value to God in that proposition? So let’s set that argument aside and look at another Jewish idea. The great Mussar Rabbi, Eliyahu Lopian (1872 – 1970), is said to have once been chatting with a student after prayers. Simultaneously, he was folding his tallit. The tallit was one of those big Orthodox ones so R. Elyah had to set it on a table to fold it. After he had folded up his tallit. the Rabbi noticed that the table was dirty so he went out to get a towel to clean it off. The student noticed what Reb Elyah was doing and started to go get him the towel. Reb Elyah stopped him. “No! No! No! Wait, please!, he said, I must clean it myself. I must show my gratitude to the table for being here for me.” In other words, we can be grateful just because; we should show gratitude to everything from which we benefit. Not gratitude to God; just gratitude… period.
So what would happen if we just set God aside for a moment? Well, let’s see what some well known atheists have to say. First, I LOVE this quote from Richard Dawkins:
“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked — as I am surprisingly often — why I bother to get up in the mornings.”
That is an interesting take on living, but only partially on gratitude. In a quote that I’m not as enamored with, but which makes my point, Dawkins speaks directly to the issue. He says this:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die, because they are never going to be born. The number of people who could be here in my place outnumbers the sand grains of Sahara. If you think about all the different ways our genes could be permuted, you and I are quite grotesquely lucky to be here: the number of events that had to happen in order for you to exist, in order for me to exist. We are privileged to be alive and we should make the most of our time on this world.”
Essentially, Dawkins is saying that even in a Godless, atheistic, worldview there is room for gratitude. Why? Because in a universe of randomness there is much more of a chance that any one of us as an individual would never have existed at all. Why should we be grateful? Because we EXIST! And to whom? Well…. I don’t know…. maybe Brownian motion, maybe 1/f randomness, maybe white noise. But that random nothingness is not necessarily depressing or nihilistic It can be wonderful… because out of random variation came ME! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!
I’m not saying that I side with Dawkins. What I am saying is that you don’t need a Christ, or a Muhammad, or a Buddha, or a Shiva, or an Adonai, or any particular Godhead to feel grateful. Gratitude is a wonderful thing for everyone. Gratitude breeds optimism, which breeds happiness, no matter what religion you have or don’t have.
In my particular case, there are lots of things for which I’m thankful today. Number one is my unconditionally loving and supportive wife, Patt. This is a great example of how gratitude can come from any worldview. If I am with Patt because God brought us together, cool! I’m a happy guy. But… If it just happened by randomness, I’m cool with that too because, in that case, out of random variation came US! What kind of wonderful chance was there of THAT!
Another cause for gratitude this Thanksgiving is that I’ve been given the chance to go back to work for Grass Valley, a company I really love. God? Maybe. Seems like Brownian motion to me. But, I’ll chose to just think it was a perfect fit and those guys are lucky as hell to have me back 🙂 I could go on, and there are many more things I could think of from this past year. But since this is my year of reading Proust, and since those other things generally involve the people in my life, I’ll take a moment to share what Proust has to say about gratitude:
“Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”
That is a beautiful way to express gratitude for friends. But, I’ll end with something I’ve said before because this is an àpropos way to close. Whether or not you believe in God, take to heart what one of my guru’s, Bob Nozick, has said – because this is a perfect expression of why one’s heart may feel gratitude, with or without a religious receiver. Take this into your heart and soul:
“It is a privilege to be part of the ongoing realm of existing things and processes… we identify with the totality and, in the calmness this brings, feel solidarity with all of our comrades in existing” — Robert Nozick (1989)