Cultivating Gratitude – Rev. Eva Cameron

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Albert Einstein said: “A hundred times every day, I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

It is good to listen to these words, and think: Ah, perhaps that is how he got so wise. He was able to stop and remember all these things. How brilliant a soul, how bright a mind! Yet, what ‘cultivating gratitude’ asks us to say, in the presence of such a quote is: “Wow; fascinating practice. I wonder how he remembered to do this. I wonder what tools he used. What can I set up in my own life, so that I too _ so that my children too _ can harvest this sense of gratitude?”

We all want to harvest gratitude. It is a natural inclination to enjoy feeling thankful. But as the old bible adage says, “You reap what you sow.”
And so, we must begin with Cultivating Gratitude that the seeds may fall into fertile soil.
Cultivation is the hard work
It is the visionary work, casting your eye upon the land,
Seeing how the water will fall and move upon the land,
And laying your field to work with the conditions you find there.
As you cultivate the land
You observe and think about what will be needed in that season
For your crops to grow well
You contemplate what the soil may be needing.
You hope for rain, but not too much.
Sun, but not too much.
This is work of discernment.
Hard work.
Visionary work.
Discernment work.

And much of it comes to us, not because of our genius, but because generations of people before us have tilled the soil, and passed their knowledge to us. Many of the world’s religions have set up systems,
after years, perhaps millenniums, of practice in cultivating gratitude.
This is not about theology very much, about what your beliefs ARE, so much as what you do in your life. Much of what all the world’s religions have to teach us have to do with establishing patterns. As we all know, habits are formed by creating patterns that remind us gently to continue in a practice. These patterns run across lives, annually — with the seasons, monthly — with the moons, weekly, and daily.

Let me review a few annual moments of gratitude:
The Jewish Seder service — celebrating getting across the desert, with an active retelling of the story in large intergenerational family groups. Remembering the pain and hardships encountered, they allow gratitude to flow from a place of pain and not just a ‘Polly Anna’, all-is-fine with the world, point of view. And although those ancient Israelites didn’t get everything they wanted out of that crossing, they got enough to make it through: the song “Diyenu” [dI-A-nu] is sung repeatedly. Diyenu, it means “enough” or “it is sufficient.” And it’s sung with bouncy, cheerful, celebratory tune to remind the singer and the listener,that having enough is really a cause to cheer.

We forget that in these times of living on the top of the global food chain. Our own annual cultural set-aside time for remembering with gratitude all that we have _ our Thanksgiving holiday _ is for most, a joke. Like this one called:

You Know You Overdid Thanksgiving When…. (check yes or no)
*Paramedics bring in the Jaws of Life to pry you out of the EZ-Boy.__
*The “Gravy Boat” your wife set out was a real 12′ boat! __
*You receive a Sumo Wrestler application in your e-mail.__
*Friday, you set off 3 earthquake seismographs on your morning jog.__
*Pricking your finger for cholesterol screening only yielded gravy.__
*A guest quotes a Biblical passage from “The Feeding of the 5000.”__
*You consider gluttony your patriotic duty.

Thanksgiving was once a ritual, which in the face of oncoming cold, people prepared a large meal from their larders, knowing that from that moment on, there was going to be nothing new added to their larders until the next harvest; a radical activity of forcing themselves to open their hearts despite a very natural tendency to cling to all that they had, knowing that by spring, food supplies likely would be very sparse.

I used to live with my grandparents. My grandmother grew up in a farming family in Maine. They always struggled to have enough. She remembers that most days at noon, it was her job to set the bean pot on the stove to heat the daily beans for their nightly dinner. This isn’t so long ago. And most of the world still lives like this, the staple food is eaten daily, and with great joy that there are still some beans, or rice, or whatever the staple is; it is still available to eat.

In these modern United States, we have some few people who live like this. But for most of us, any day of the week we wanted to set the table for a thanksgiving dinner, we could do it; and it wouldn’t radically alter our lives in any way. And so the most important annual holiday for gratitude has lost its teeth. We cannot feel any strong emotions in this holiday.

What we must ask ourselves, is: “If the original holiday asked us to pry open our clinging, clutching fingers, to the radical opening as a form of gratitude — then we must ask ourselves, what do we fear losing, what do we cling to, what do we have a sense of want about?” It would only be a thanksgiving if we could open our fingers on that day, and allow ampleness in our lives of that very thing.

[Those present are asked to visit with their neighbor, answering this question: “What is it for you?”]

I want to review some other practices that invite gratitude into our lives.

Common weekly practices:
For Jews — The weekly Seder at the home, with lit candles, prayers of thanksgiving for home and family, punctuate the week each Friday. And, too, there are the weekly services on Friday night or Saturday at the synagogue.
For Christians — There have long been weekly Sunday services, and Sabbath day. This day of rest, allows a contrast to work, and bring a time for reflection and thanks. Try it!

Some traditions emphasize daily practices:
Muslims pray 5 times a day.
Hindus have daily pujas — a ritual of offering food, flowers, fire, and prayers to the divine. Most homes will have a puja room, or puja corner.
Shintos have daily prayers, as we learned from Joyce.

I could go on, but let me move on to quickly point out that many traditions encourage other daily practices too, grace at meals, and bedtime gratitude prayers.

Outside of traditional religion, most families and institutions have their ways of expressing gratitude formally. These formalities create opportunities for gratitude to be expressed. And usually we are happy for these things, because our own, individual, voices would not be as strong. I think of these thanks that come to voice many people’s gratitude as “megaphone thanks.”
In families, one good example of an institutionalized “thanks” is birthday parties — the celebration of a human being. They really are a delight for the person receiving the party. And, it is a joy to set aside some time to celebrate a person’s birth, not their merit for deeds well done, but just the fact that they are here. Today, I am really happy that Brittany was born. Noting birthdays is a wonderful family and cultural habit. Who knows who thought of it, but it isn’t something that’s been around forever, or in all cultures. It’s a human invention. And a charming one.

Can it run amok? Yes, like kids drinking themselves to oblivion or death on their 21st birthdays, or children ‘drowning’ in toys received, unneeded and wasteful, or worse yet, feeling badly about themselves for not having received one of the many hyper-markets pop-culture ‘necessities’ of childhood. Yet, these things aside, it is a tradition that endures because we are able to use it to create wonderful moments in a person’s life.

My kids just celebrated birthdays in the past few weeks. And I always like to use that time to tell them the story of when they were born, and my wonder and joy at their arrival. I might not think to tell them otherwise. It’s a fun ritual for me. I am very glad they were born and are a part of my life.

Other groups, organizations, and communities practice gratitude, too. Here are some I can think of: A Community Bulletin Board in the Newspaper; organizations that appoint someone to write thank-you notes; people who say thanks to strangers, clerks, mail carriers, and custodians; Worker of the Month awards; Nobel Prizes; Purple Hearts; Honorary Degrees; Honorary Titles; Presidential Commendations. What groups/institutions have you seen do “thank-you’s” that have really worked for you (either something you received, or something that you observed)? Visit with your neighbor for a few minutes about this. [pause]

Have you noticed something? We have the words “Thanksgiving,” “Thankfulness,” and other words of thanks. How do these differ from “gratitude”? “Thanks” is something external. It is a way of acknowledging and expressing the other. “Gratitude” is a certain spirit of the heart or the soul. It is a sense of being that is open to other, and delights in the presence of rich fabric that is our lives.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, or perhaps better, a Hebraic Humanist, whose thinking developed in the face of the First World War, years ago taught us the value of comprehending that we have the power to see the world in the framework of what he termed “I, Thou” relationships. He used the formal, rather archaic word “thou” to remind us that the spark of the divine is present in all that we see as other to us. We can treat the ‘other’ as an object, a common ‘It.’ Or, we can treat the ‘other’ as something sacred, something special, something holy _ and think of it as “Thou.” Some of us are aware that old school Quakers continued this practice long after the rest of the English speaking world discontinued saying ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for this very reason. A device to remember, speak carefully, respectfully, keep your heart open to the mystery and wonder of the other—a way to cultivate gratitude. Buber always insisted that the duality of primal relations that he called the I-Thou and the I-It, was not a philosophical conception, but a reality beyond the reach of discursive language. He wrote in German “Ich/Du” which is the informal, more intimate form of ‘you’ in the German language, used between mothers and children say, rather than the more formal usage of ‘you’ that the word ‘thou’ represents. I think the wisdom here, is to alter your normal usage patterns enough, to mentally shift gears, slow down, and realize the immensity of the gift that relationship represents, even if it is totally commonplace. Buber admired how the Hasidic communities actualized their religion in daily life and culture. And, perhaps his famous call for us to think about how we view the world is a call for us to actualize our religion in our daily lives _ beginning with how we conceive of every encounter with the other. Here’s a humorous poem that helps us understand the differing ways we can approach a situation:

The Cookie Thief By Valerie Cox
A woman was waiting at an airport one night,
With several long hours before her flight,
She hunted for a book in the airport shop,
Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

She was engrossed in her book, but happened to see,
That the man beside her, as bold as could be,
Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag between,
Which she tried to ignore, to avoid a scene.

She read, munched cookies, and watched the clock,
As the gutsy “cookie thief” diminished her stock.
She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,
Thinking, “If I wasn’t so nice, I’d blacken his eye!”

With each cookie she took, he took one too.
When only one was left, she wondered what he’d do.
With a smile on his face and a nervous laugh,
He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

He offered her half, as he ate the other.
She snatched it from him and thought, “Oh brother,
This guy has some nerve, and he’s also rude,
Why, he didn’t even show any gratitude!”

She had never known when she had been so galled,
And sighed with relief when her flight was called.
She gathered her belongings and headed for the gate,
Refusing to look back at the “thieving ingrate.”

She boarded the plane and sank in her seat,
Then sought her book, which was almost complete.
As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise.
There was her bag of cookies in front of her eyes!

“If mine are here,” she moaned with despair,
“Then the others were his and he tried to share!”
Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,
That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief!

Most spiritual and psychological traditions speak of the importance of cultivating a sense of gratitude in life. It is a way to evolve into higher realms of human existence and consistently experience joy, aliveness, and meaning in one’s life. This is especially true here, where Western culture bombards us with the lure and illusory promise of material things from the moment we are born. Our entire consumer-oriented culture is based on convincing people that the real solution to our unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life is that we need to buy something we do not yet have _ and often really do not need. And then we feel even worse if we can’t or won’t buy it. All of our major indices of prosperity and success are based on the idea that consumption is good, and more consumption is better. So, even if we do buy the latest thing, our satisfaction is short-lived and fades as soon as the next new wonder-product comes out.
But what inner qualities does this entire industry of induced consumption breed in us? Unfortunately, it has created a nation of greedy, envious, self-serving, worried, competitive people who tend to put more attention on what they don’t have then what they have, creating more craving, more desire, more emptiness, and more longing. Compare this attitude with that of the philosopher Epictetus, who said: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” And, this attitude of dissatisfaction exists in a country which has more material prosperity than any country in history.

Just how fortunate are we in the United States? According to recent estimates by the United Nations, worldwide, about 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes; some 800 million people in the world suffer from hunger and malnutrition; and 1.6 billion people still live in absolute poverty. If one includes those living in “relative poverty,” the poor population across the globe amounts to 3.3 billion, more than half of the entire world. In other words, over 50% of the population on Earth would be thrilled beyond belief to live at the standard of most Americans. And yet for so many of us, it’s still not enough.

And so, our universities have begun to study gratitude. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude in North America. He says:
“There’s a whole cluster of related characteristics that seem to go together — things like optimism, hope, gratitude, and happiness. Some of this, I would guess, is genetically determined. Some of it is going to be based upon early life experiences and positive relationships with other people. Very little of it, interestingly, seems to depend upon circumstances. So, there are just these ways of framing life experiences that transcend good or bad things that are happening to a person. There’s a cluster of positive characteristics; and then, there’s another set of characteristics which block those positive characteristics. A sense of entitlement, or deservingness, is something that’s going to block this recognition that other people are partly responsible for the good things that happen to us. When I take all the credit for the good things that happen to me it’s going to be hard to feel a sense of indebtedness or sense of gratefulness in life.”

Then an interviewer asks him: “What would you consider to be a common, but incorrect assumption about your work?” I thought his answer was really informative for us UUs. Emmons answers: “Sometimes there’s an assumption that if one is grateful then almost by definition one is less autonomous or less self-motivated. That gratitude leads to complacency, you know, accepting one’s situation no matter what it is (unhealthy, abusive, etc.), and not doing anything about it. I’ve never seen a case where that’s happened. We don’t find evidence of that passivity in the research.”

We UUs have had a long history of valuing independence, and it is only in the last 20 years that we have added the language of “honoring the interdependent web of which we are all a part” to our principles. And we’ve been trying to figure out how to do that ever since!

Inter-dependent web: don’t’ just say the words because they sound ‘cool’; figure out ways to remind yourself and celebrate its existence. Try Meditation focused on your surroundings _ prayers of thanks that weave through the web. Try keeping a Gratitude Journal every day. Call or write thank-you’s randomly, not just when socially required. Keep a Family Gratitude Book that comes out each Thanksgiving. Determine some practices that will seem authentic to you, and keep with them. And don’t worry that you are in danger of becoming passive by cultivating gratitude for all that you have.

The consistent practice of expressing gratitude also reminds us that we do not live alone; we survive only because we are constantly receiving goods from people, from nature, and from spirit. Gratitude helps us to be more aware of the many things that we receive from other people, and realize that our lives depend on the perpetual giving of others, and we feel a deeper responsibility to give more of ourselves.

My hopes for this year, in declaring “Cultivating Gratitude” as our spiritual theme, are that you will create and adopt patterns that allow you and your family to experience gratitude on a regular basis. Daily, weekly, monthly, annually. This will be work. Cultivation is work. But without, there is little to harvest.

The challenge of our faith, which stresses the authenticity of the individual relationship with God and associated religious understandings, is that this handing of power over to the individual has come at a loss. We forget to teach the practices which have helped human beings cultivate gratitude for thousands of years. We forget the powerful voice of strength that a community that speaks together, in concert, offers towards expressing gratitude: the “megaphone voice” of everyone saying ‘thanks’ or feeling an ‘I/thou’ experience together.

I ask you to get out your calendars, your planners, sit at your family meetings, and schedule in some times for giving thanks. Gratitude, that feeling that is inside, will grow and flourish with these outward symbols of thanksgiving, if you choose to make them your own.

I’m not asking you to give thanks to God at each meal, if you don’t believe in a God. But that doesn’t mean that as you sit down to eat, you have nothing to be thankful for. Try and imagine all the living beings and non-living things that have contributed to your being able to eat that meal. From ancient carbon, from life forms long ago that fuel your stove, the tractors that cultivated the fields and harvested the crop, and the trucks that hauled your food to be processed. Hands that grew it, hands that prepared it, hands that cooked it. Not all of these are you, in most cases. We live inter-dependent lives. Pause at each meal, and remember. Celebrate this interdependence. Speak your thankfulness. This will open your heart to a harvest of gratitude.

It’s good to start with young children. A UU minister, Laurel Hallman, told me last week in her workshop, that studies on human habits have shown that habits take 2 years to be established. Then, of course, once you get the ‘habit’ down, you need time to cultivate skill and deepen the mindset. We need to take this seriously.

I also hope that you will work with us this year at church to examine ways we can cultivate a climate of gratitude here. People come here to give, and they give so much. They give hours of their time, sometimes each week. They give of their hearts, trying new things, sharing what they care about with you, trying to be authentic. We have so much to be thankful with all the awesome people who are here.

Let’s find ways to be appreciative all that happens around here. Not just speaking as individuals — although that is very important. I also want to develop more of the ‘megaphone thanks’ that comes from a larger group throwing their weight behind a thanks that comes from regularly setting aside time, and ways to be thankful for all we have as a community.

I close with this quote by Melody Beattie:

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

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