Moments before she closed her eyes for the final time, passing into the next realm after nearly 96 years of life, my late grandmother said one simple word: “Wonderful.”
None of us will know — perhaps until we stand at that same threshold — what she was seeing, understanding, or experiencing at that moment that was wonderful. But, I like to think and believe her statement was a recognition of profound gratitude and thanks, of sheer and utter wonder, at the life she was fortunate enough to live.
I find it difficult much of the time to have full recognition of all I should be thankful for, grateful for. The rush of life, replete with deadlines and decisions, negative news and sordid stories, succeeds more often than not in making me focus on the bad rather than the good, the failures and setbacks and stumbles instead of the myriad joys and stunning richness of life. I’m guessing that many of you have similar experience.
It can be hard to stay positive, to remain thankful, in times like these. Last year, while struggling with the daily ups and downs of life on the road — living out of duffel bags with an elderly dog in foreign lands — my wife, Wende, had us begin a simple — yet hugely impactful — daily routine: at dinner each night, we’d all share five things we were grateful for. They didn’t have to be huge things — although they could be — but just something triggering recognition of the oft-overlooked bounty of our lives, reminding us of all we have to be grateful for.
For all of us, it was a challenge at first, stumbling to extract a nugget of beauty from a perhaps-trying day. But, soon enough, we all settled into a rhythm of gratefulness, seeing a simple sunrise, a downpour on a parched landscape, a totaled van with no injuries, or a recently-mauled dog wearing a t-shirt to cover her stitches in the streets of Podgorica…seeing all these things as cause for gratitude. As Kahlil Gibran wrote: “Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.”
We fell out of the habit, though. Back home, the chaos of the day and the overwhelm of an increasingly negative world withered our gratitude practice. Sunrises and sunsets pass with nary a notice, days become easily filled with complaints about what we lack (honestly, very little) rather than celebrations of all we have (honestly, all we could possibly need). And, it affects us all: when we lack gratitude for simply being alive and living, we tend to look for more things to fill our days — a new phone, a fancy car, the latest widget — hoping for, desperately grasping for, some excuse to be thankful. And yet, we find, it’s never enough: the widget’s lame, the car gets old, the new phone needs to be replaced by the next new one.
The reasons to be grateful are many, and they’re all around us, every day. The sun rising. Our lungs filling and hearts beating. A loved one beside us, or their memory to guide us. The sun setting, its ebbing light holding the promise of tomorrow. Sitting around the dinner table, holding hands, and saying what we’re grateful for.
As he neared the end of life’s final chapter, Oliver Sacks penned in his book, Gratitude:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.