Chapter 7: Gratitude for Life

Liberal Christianity at the Crossroads
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 7: Gratitude for Life

Grace is the final word of worship and the underlying experience of Christian life. But "grace" as a word has become foreign to our ordinary language. It appears now only as part of a technical sacred language that is little related to daily living. This chapter and the two that follow, on gratitude, trust, and justification, are attempts to make real for our situation aspects of the historic meaning of grace.

Luke tells a story of Jesus meeting ten lepers (Luke 17:11-18). In response to their cry for help he sends them to show themselves to the priests. All are cured of the dread disease, but only one returns to thank Jesus.

How much one has to be grateful for doesn’t have much to do with how grateful he is. Luke drove home that point in this story. It was driven home to me again on a tourist trip to Coconut Island, not far from Honolulu. For several minutes the captain told us about the former owner, Chris Holmes, in terms calculated to arouse our envy. Holmes apparently had everything a man could want. He was able to turn his beautiful tropical island into a miniature paradise exactly according to his desires. But at the height of his fortune, he killed himself.

It is ironic that some people who have so much despair of life and destroy it, whereas others who have so little cling to it. Those who are objectively the most fortunate sometimes are the most miserable, whereas others who have suffered terribly in outward ways are thankful for the gift of life.

Whether a man is grateful for what comes to him or resentful for what he lacks depends upon his basic orientation in life. Luke suggests that grateful men are in a small minority. Most people compare their lots with those of others who are in many respects like them, but who in some particular seem more fortunate. However well off they become financially, for example, there is always someone else who, by luck, has come out ahead. There is always some benefit of wealth that still lies beyond their means.

If a man’s interest is directed not so much to material possessions as to sexual enjoyment, he will compare himself with someone else who seems more fortunate. Even if he enjoys a full and healthy sex life, he can find someone else who is more attractive to the opposite sex and more able to enjoy his conquests. There is always some real or imagined pleasure that is still denied him.

In the academic profession each person tends to look at the colleague who is a step ahead. If one lacks a position, he compares himself with another person who has secured one. If one has trouble attracting students to his classes, he compares himself with a more popular teacher. If one has not published a book, he compares himself with a colleague who has. If one has published a book, he compares himself with an author whose book has been more widely or more favorably discussed.

This tendency to compare ourselves with those who seem a little better off is basic to our competitive system. It goads us to greater efforts that are often socially constructive.

But looking at ourselves in comparison with those who are a step ahead is not calculated to make us happy. Instead, it breeds restlessness and anxiety. Further, ungrudging admiration for someone who is a little more fortunate is very rare. We have a strong tendency to think that his success is not due to any real merit on his part. We suppose that the one who has the job we lack had connections or pulled strings; that the one who is more popular uses questionable devices; that the one who published first shirked his other duties in order to do so; and so forth. Thus comparison with those who are more fortunate than ourselves breeds envy and resentment. Since there is always someone who is a step ahead, or seems to be so, and since there is always some good that we lack, no amount of success in our chosen direction brings us the happiness we expect. Looking at life in this way, we see no cause for gratitude.

One might advise that instead of comparing ourselves with others who have, or seem to have, more, we should compare ourselves with those who are less fortunate. Indeed, that advice is frequently offered. Just before we stuff ourselves on Thanksgiving turkey, we are reminded that we should remember the starving.

We should indeed be mindful of those who are less fortunate, but that has its own dangers. If we compare ourselves with those who are much worse off, we are likely to feel pity rather than gratitude. Pity tends to be a complacent and ineffective feeling that rarely leads to action. We pity the hungry while we eat our turkey. We feel rather complacent about ourselves. We may express thanks that we are not in the situation of those other miserable wretches, but our thanks are smug and self-congratulatory.

If we compare ourselves instead with those who are just below us, our competitors for the social rewards we both desire, then we feel threatened. We resent the resentment of those we have worsted. We think we deserve their respect and we receive their envy instead. We are driven to work harder to maintain our advantage over them. In this competition there is no secure resting place. Gratitude has no place in our feelings.

The problems that arise from the competitive quest for the goods of life have been recognized for thousands of years. One response has been to cut the nerve of desire that underlies all these comparisons and the resulting unhappiness. If man can never succeed in achieving what he desires, is it not better to cease desiring it?

That view has been taken very seriously and consistently by Buddhists and Stoics. They show that by desiring nothing at all or only those goods which are within our own power to realize, we can be free from the endless unhappiness of comparing ourselves enviously and defensively with others.

Many others have agreed that to set one’s heart on wealth, sexual fulfillment, and professional success is a mistake. They hold that when we orient our lives around goals of this sort, we condemn ourselves to disappointment. They teach that only spiritual values are really worth attaining, and that if we sincerely seek these, we will receive them.

There is a profound wisdom in these doctrines, and people have achieved a good deal of serenity by practicing them. Much of our unhappiness does stem from setting our hearts on the wrong things. Especially the competitive element in these desires is wrong. These worldly goods should be subordinated to personal relations, justice for all, and ultimately the vision of God.

But Christianity cannot share in belittling the value of wealth, sex, and success. Christians think of the world as creation. Even in its crassest physical expressions, the world is good. God desires its existence and fulfills his purposes through it. The Christian cannot be indifferent to worldly goods. He is instead grateful for them.

Christian gratitude is not based upon comparison with others. To be grateful for being richer, sexier, or more successful than another is arrogance and selfishness. True gratitude can arise only when we give up comparisons and view life in an "absolute" way.

"Absolute" is a tricky word. It suggests something very mysterious, whereas what is intended here is fairly simple. By viewing things absolutely I mean seeing them just as they are in themselves. Most of the time it seems that to think of something as good is to think of it as better than something else. We are inveterate comparers. But it is also possible to ask whether it is good in itself. If we must compare, we can ask whether it is better than nothing at all. That helps us to answer the question. But the question of whether something is good need not involve any comparison at all.

If I am hungry and I am given a bowl of vegetable soup, I can appreciate that soup as good. I am not pronouncing it to be better or worse than something else I might have received, such as clam chowder. I am simply judging it as it is.

When we press down to the most fundamental level of our attitude, we come to absolute judgments of some kind. They are usually not conscious, but they govern consciousness. The comparative judgments that we consciously make are determined by them.

One unconscious, absolute judgment that many people make about life is that it is a task. They find themselves driven to achieve something. The meaning of life is measured by its success in attaining set goals. Comparisons with others follow along the lines set by these goals. Life as a whole is a strenuous effort. Some satisfaction can be taken in partial success, but for the most part life cheats a person of the fruits of his effort. Time erodes achievements. The most that can be done is to pass on the torch to others. The ultimate image of this experience of life is that of Sisyphus through all eternity pushing his stone up to the top of a mountain only to have it roll down again.

Others have been disillusioned by the consequences of the view of life as a task. If the goals cannot be reached, or if they are worthless in themselves, then the whole thing is ridiculous, absurd. Man is thrown into a swirl of events that do not add up or go anywhere. Everything is chance and necessity without meaning or purpose.

At this fundamental level of interpretation argument is out of place. There is no disproof of the view of life as "thrownness." But the philosopher whose analysis of human existence gave clearest expression to this way of understanding -- Martin Heidegger -- went on himself to another perception, one in which thankfulness dominated.

Rather than noticing the arbitrariness of our place in a meaningless world, we may experience life, the sheer fact of being alive, as good. We see that life is given to us freely in every moment as a fresh opportunity to be and to do and to enjoy. The means of preserving life are generally pleasant as well as necessary. And for most of us life makes possible more sophisticated pleasures as well. We have cause to be grateful.

This Christian understanding of man’s situation leads to the affirmation of life as it is given. It closely resembles the spirit of other traditions, such as that expressed in this beautiful poem from Zen Buddhism:

In spring, the flowers, and in autumn the moon,

In summer a refreshing breeze, and in winter the snow.

What else do I have need of?

Each hour to me is an hour of joy.

(Quoted from Edward Couze, Buddhism: its Essence and Development, p. 205; Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., Harper Torchbook, 1959.)

Surely the spirit of sheer immediacy in this poem is very close to the spirit of gratitude as the Christian knows it. The enlightened Buddhist in the Zen tradition accepts what comes in its immediate goodness. He does not compare what he experiences with anything else. He wastes no time on regrets or on envy of others. He is aware of what is as it is, and he affirms it. He does not inquire into the future consequences of events. The simple and direct awareness of what is present to him drives out all anxiety and restlessness.

Yet just here, where the spirit of Buddhism is so close to that of Christianity, differences appear. The Christian too is called to enjoy the flowers, the moon, the breeze, and the snow. But he is called to respond in gratitude. Since he has received such gifts, it is his opportunity and task to share with others. To whom much is given, from him much is expected. The Israelite knew himself to be especially blessed by God. For that reason, in gratitude for God’s gifts, he was called to costly service.

One reason that the spirit of gratitude has become so rare in our culture is that it has been mistaken for its perverted forms. Against these we have rightly reacted in disgust.

Pollyanna symbolizes one of these perversions. The logic of this perversion is superficially sound. The Christian sees life as good. He does not compare what comes to him with what comes to others. Must he not then deny the reality of evil and give up all realistic appraisal?

The answer is no. Pain and anxiety and separation and cruelty are part of what comes to each of us, and they are evil. In some cases they may contribute to a later and a larger good, but there is no guarantee of that. To believe that, in spite of this evil, life remains fundamentally good prevents us from being preoccupied with evil and from growing resentful and envious, but it does not hinder recognition of evil for what it is. On the contrary, it is only in the context of appreciation of the goodness of life that evil is fully recognized. Evil is the destruction of life. The more we love life and are grateful for the gift of life, the more sensitive we are to the ways in which life is curtailed and distorted.

The emphasis that life should be viewed absolutely rather than comparatively leads all too readily to a second perversion. Without comparing the conditions of men and our own condition with that of others, we cannot attend to questions of justice.

To guard against that perversion we must make a clear distinction between our most fundamental stance toward reality and the secondary activities that are allowed and encouraged within it. The basic Christian stance is one of thankfulness. But thankfulness is appreciation for real goods. How goods are distributed is important in a world in which what happens matters.

When we are victims of injustice, we do well to recognize that fact both for our own sakes and for others’ sakes as well. Even more important, we must never allow our appreciation for the goodness of all life to dull our awareness of the injustices inflicted upon others. It has done so at times in Christendom. It was in a Christian culture that Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the people. But the prophetic spirit that is our Jewish heritage, the spirit embodied also in Marx, reminds us repeatedly that the grateful man is active in behalf of the oppressed.

There is a third perversion, more dangerous perhaps, because so close to the true spirit of gratitude. It is symbolized in the flower children of a few years ago.

Central to the lesson that many young people tried to teach us in the ‘60s is the idea that life is to be enjoyed. They saw that their parents too often treated life as a task, a heavy burden, a labor to be accomplished. The youth protested that in working always for future happiness, we have ignored the goodness of what is already at hand. We have built a society that prizes expensive and difficult goods accessible only through the accumulation of wealth. Advertising suggests to us that we can be happy only by traveling to distant places, having fine food and clothing, owning luxurious homes, automobiles, and motorboats. We neglect the simple and readily accessible goods -- the beauty of nature, the enjoyment of friends and family, even the taste of simple foods.

This lesson has been needed. Young people taught us dramatically by public flouting of false, conventional values. They rejected competition in favor of those values which we can all enjoy together. By returning to simpler and more natural life-styles, some of them have shown that we do not have to submit ourselves so painfully to the pressures of earning a living.

But the lesson has been simplistic and one-sided. Not all effort is misdirected. Not all of the complexity of life is artificial and false. The richest values are not always the simplest ones. There are goals worth working for, and there is value in the process of seeking as well as in what is found. To affirm that life is good and to be grateful for it need not be to turn our backs on the achievements of civilization. These, too, are embodiments of life. If life is good, its refinement and its manifold expressions are also good.

To have the spirit of gratitude, then, is to affirm what comes. We are to enjoy it, but not without responsibility. We are to affirm the fundamental goodness of life but not so as to acquiesce in the power of evil as it thwarts and destroys life. We are to rejoice in life as it comes to each of us individually, but to remain concerned for justice in the distribution of what is valuable. We are to savor the elemental in life, but not in such a way as to disparage the more complex expressions of life in art and science.

When we understand what the spirit of gratitude is, we may decide that we ought to be thankful. Or when we see that the grateful man enjoys life in a way which is closed to others, we may desire to become more appreciative. In either case, we will seek ways and means of changing our attitude. And to some extent that is possible. As children we sang, "Count your many blessings, name them one by one." And it is true that thinking about our blessings does more to make us grateful toward life than does nursing our grievances. As adults we have been told by Norman Vincent Peale about "the power of positive thinking," and there is no doubt that some have found improvement through practicing the techniques he recommends.

However, these are superficial approaches to the problem. They alter temporarily our conscious attitudes, sometimes masking deep resentments underneath. By concealing from us the negativism of our fundamental attitudes, they can hinder the change that is really needed.

What is needed is to experience all life as grace. That means to experience it as a gift and to experience the gift as good. Grace means unearned favor. Life is not thrust upon us but is offered to us as opportunity. We have done nothing to merit this gift. It is completely free. And with all its problems and ambiguities it remains fundamentally and absolutely good.

The word "grace" has faded from our vocabulary. The experience of life as a free gift has declined. These two occurrences are both cause and effect of each other. Our sense of the burdensomeness of life and our resentment toward it have crowded out the experience of grace. With the loss of the word the moments in which life is known in its goodness and givenness pass by unnamed. What is unnamed is little noticed. What is little noticed fades from effectiveness. If the goodness and freeness of life are to be recognized again, the word "grace" must be restored to power. Where life is known as grace, gratitude springs naturally from the heart.

But how can this change occur? How can we cease to see life as pressure, demand, and pain and view it instead as grace? If we do not experience life as grace, it does not help to pretend that we do. It is much better to express frankly our disappointment with life than to feel a resentment we conceal even from ourselves. Sometimes it happens that by working through our negative feelings we become open for affirmative ones. We must trust the truth.

We can trust the truth, because life is grace. It is given to us, and what is given is good. That is the gospel, and it can renew itself in all its strangeness to the modern ear. When we hear it, then from time to time what it announces rings true. In those moments, whether things are going well for us or badly, gratitude becomes a reality. Gratitude, too, is a gift.