Through most of my toughest times I've managed to drill through the darkness at the bottom of the day by making additions to an inventory of gratitude that I've been working on for more than 20 years.
The giving of thanks is a habit like any other, a discipline that has to be cultivated, especially in a world where there's so much pressing preoccupation and suffering that gratitude can feel like an indulgence, or just another reminder of our often appalling privilege.
I believe in the old Christian notion of Grace; very few of us have done anything sufficiently virtuous to deserve what -- at the risk of being perceived as quaint or even daft -- I'll go ahead and call our "blessings."
There's a lottery aspect to this concept of grace that should be discomfiting to those of us who have things that so many other people in this world don't have, or have had stripped away by tragic and calamitous circumstances. There are perhaps others in this world who might be given a pass on gratitude. Much of the time, though, I can recognize that I'm surely not one of them.
Like so many others, though, I have too often been guilty of the most petulant sort of ingratitude. Being ungrateful is an easy and knee-jerk thing, but how hard, really, is gratitude? How hard is it to sit down and make an inventory of all the things for which you should be grateful? Any of us -- or most of us -- should be able to do this. Anyone, at least, who still has dreams and memories, however inchoate or bittersweet, swirling around in their skull, or anyone whose heart can still be stirred by music, art, or beauty; anyone whose heart can still kneel in the presence of suffering or sadness or grief; all of us, honestly, who have received so much more than we have given.
Our responsibility as members of a family or a community, however large or small, however (these days) ersatz and virtual, is to share in each other's happiness and sorrow; to pick each other up when we fall, lift each other's spirits, carry each other when we're too sick, tired, or broken to go on, and to allow ourselves to be swept along when we're seized by joy.
I depend on these things more than ever now that I feel so often stalled and thwarted in the backstretch of my middle years. Lately I have been spending too much time contemplating a Stanley Kunitz poem called "The Layers." The question Kunitz poses in that poem is a tough one: "How shall my heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?" And his answer, I think, is that he -- and we -- have to learn to turn, to go on, and to exult, to embrace life as a "book of transformations." Like Kunitz, I have "made myself a tribe of my true affections, and my tribe is scattered."
My own tribe is truly scattered, fragmented, fractured; the only place I thought of as home for my first 50 years is gone now, and in the last year I have lost people -- and a beloved dog -- I regarded (rightfully) as essential. Such losses, coupled with the daily poison that now masquerades as current events, inspired a good deal of glum rumination, but gratitude is a stubborn thing, a light -- sometimes barely a glimmer -- that can penetrate even the most intractable darkness.
And the older I get the more determined I am to honor and acknowledge all the light that manages to find me, or to go looking for it when necessary. I know how easily people can be crushed in this world. I know how painful it can feel to be here. But I also know that no one can survive for long on a steady diet of despair. You don't have to look very hard or very far to find examples of how tough and resilient humans can be. Most of us don't have to look beyond our own lives and the lives of our families and friends.
Our suffering is something we have in common with the hundreds of millions of other people who've survived -- and often triumphed over -- adversity, disappointment, and all manner of betrayals and loss. I like to believe that most of us are at least as sturdy as those people were and are, and that like them we can continue to press on by holding tight to our oldest and fiercest dreams and ideals, and by taking every opportunity to give thanks: For the passions that have shaped and sustained us, and for the people with whom we share those passions; for the blessings of our bodies; for the resilient miracles of nature; for every opportunity of communal ecstasy and grief; for the dizzying marvel that is the average American grocery store; for the idiot wonder inspired by a phonograph record, a baby, a giraffe, a magnificent musician or athlete, or even an iPhone.
Sometimes this world feels like a foundering lifeboat, but in our more lucid moments we can recognize that it's crowded with all sorts of other thoroughly decent people who are doing everything in their power to keep it afloat.
Thoughts and prayers -- particularly when ceaselessly uttered by hypocritical parrots and politicians -- are much maligned these days, but "Thank you" strikes me as the purest and most simple sort of thought or prayer, whether offered to a particular person or as a hosanna to the majesty, mystery, and magic of life. Those simple words -- "Thank you," much like the other simple words to which they are cognate: "I love you" and "I'm sorry" -- don't absolve anyone of anything or preclude a responsibility to act, but they nonetheless have a remarkable power to extinguish burning bridges and assuage hurt and perceived insignificance. They're part of the connective tissue that makes us human.
We should all find more time -- and more ways -- to say thank you, and to take stock of our gratitude. The United States is one of a small number of countries in the world that sets aside a day for its citizens to give thanks, but the pure and simple fundamentals of the occasion are too often eclipsed by precisely the too-muchness for which we're supposed to be giving thanks.
Go ahead and eat too much. Let yourself go. Get drunk and argue about politics. But also try to take at least a few moments to look around, to appreciate and toast your friends and family and your ability to dance and laugh and care, and all the other things, whether frivolous or irreplaceable, that you've been given.
And say thank you. Thanks a million. Thanks so fucking much. For all of it. For everyone you love, everyone you've loved and lost, and for all the other essential things that remain, and endure.
Brad Zellar lives in St. Paul. This piece appeared originally on his personal blog.