I believe that being grateful is a natural part of being human. We may have to learn how to express and channel that reaction to kindness or help, but gratitude is innate in our species, as it is in other groups of the “animal” kingdom. There are recorded cases of birds remembering who mended their broken wings, cats and dogs retaining memories of who saved them from starvation or cruelty, lion and tiger cubs recalling rescuers many years afterward.
For human beings gratitude is necessary for true happiness and a full sense of life. To be grateful is to be more aware of the joy in being alive, that powerful emotion that tells us life itself is a wonderful gift, which may even be what happiness itself is in the broadest sense.
In terms of religious doctrine and practice, human beings might use the adjective “thankful” to express a heightened sensation of appreciation or that feeling of being “beholden” for things that make life more beautiful or meaningful, like the birth of a healthy child, a reunion with an old friend, or the healing of a wound, whether physical or emotional. The idea of God seems a perfectly natural recipient of our thanks, the concept of God taking many forms in the many religions of the world. Though we humans do not often do well with nameless abstractions, it is still possible to feel a sense of thankfulness on some level without an act of worship. Dozens of the world’s religions all claim to be the “true” ones, each with its own passionate argument about the real road to enlightenment or even salvation, but one thing they all seem to share is the need to feel and express being thankful for the unfathomable gift of life.
In our time we face a materialistic world of “things,” gadgets, machines, electronics, and generally venal values that many people actually believe determine their worth as human beings. The more we accumulate, the more spoiled we become and the more we want, until we lose sight of what are more essential things, like devotion, loyalty, love, generosity, compassion, and friendship. Some compare their wealth and that of others, sometimes holding on tightly to the illusion of entitlement based upon their having worked harder, having been more “godly,” or just smarter. At last they realize that mere “things” are not as important as they may have thought, even the smallest of which cannot be taken to the grave.
It has often been my experience that those with the least material possessions are also the ones most thankful for whatever they have. Maybe that’s because there is also a keen awareness of the frequent absence of even material necessities, let alone pleasures. The other side of this coin is that wealth can reach a point at which one has so very much in terms of material possessions that those “things” become blurred in an ever-upward climb toward more and more, so that the more things there are, the less they mean.
We’ve all complained about life’s little twists and turns. I’ve caught myself asking, “Why me?” when cutting myself shaving…a week after which I should also have been asking the same question about the healing of that cut. The bottom line is one of awareness of the good around and inside us, even on our saddest and worst days.
Whether or not one believes in an omnipotent and sympathetic creator, there remains an empty or hollow space in every life that can be filled only by gratitude, expression of that awareness of life as the most extraordinary and miraculous of gifts. Maybe we can and should look at those we love and at the beauty of the natural world whenever it manifests itself in a flower, a tree, a sunrise or sunset, and know that being alive is truly a remarkable thing. Such awe is perhaps finally what thankfulness really is, and happiness too.