Category: Gratitude

A good life

For 80+ years, Harvard researchers have studied what makes for a good life. One surefire predictor has emerged: developing stronger relationships. The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness will be updated on January 10. Robert Waldinger described the study’s work in a 2016 Ted Talk.

The New York Times has a health and wellness desk known simply as Well, which was inspired by the Harvard study to develop a “Seven Day Happiness Challenge.” Times subscribers can sign-up for seven daily emails (January 2-8). Jancee Dunn, a reporter for the Well desk, described her experience with one of the challenges.

The challenge is to write or tell someone why you’re grateful for them. Dunn wrote to her 4th grade teacher, Roseann Manley to thank her for a note she wrote on Dunn’s report card: “Jancee is a very talented writer, and I think she’s going to be a famous writer someday.” Dunn remembers thinking, “Oh, she sees something in me.” Dunn said the teacher’s affirmation changed the course of her life.

So I tracked Ms. Manley down, all these years later. And I told her how grateful I was. And we’ve now exchanged dozens and dozens of letters. She’s 91, widowed and doesn’t have kids. I call her every Christmas. She sends me letters with puppies and kittens on the stationery. She’s become my substitute grandmother. It’s been a wonderful thing.

From “A Happier New Year,” by Lauren Jackson, The New York Times, January 1, 2023 (photo from Times Square on 12/31/22 by Andres Kudacki/Associated Press)

Waking up grateful

Today I was introduced to Kristi Nelson, the director of A Network for Grateful Living, which was the focus of “Gratitude is a Practice,” today’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation. Her opening three sentences:

At 33 years old, I was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had metastasized to my spine. After going through 18 months of hospitalizations, surgeries, chemotherapy, and treatments, I asked my oncologist, “When will I be out of the woods?” He answered, “You will never be out of the woods.”

The heart of her message is this:

The first few years of uncertainty and remission put the blessings of my life in sharp relief. I was in super-soak mode—every experience was saturated with new meaning, and I was absorbing it all fully. I did not know any other way to live the moments I had than to greet each one as gratefully as I could. Not sure how much more time was mine, I was awestruck by every moment, every person, and every thing.

She concludes with the reality that gratitude is a practice:

After some challenging years, dramatic wake-up calls, and my share of spiritual suffering, I came to realize that maintaining a grateful perspective is a true practice…. and it is still something I need to nurture and tend daily. . . . The practice of looking at the world through grateful eyes and with a grateful heart is an exquisite end in itself. 

I commend the entire meditation to you as great Thanksgiving weekend reading.

From a two-minute video by Kristi Nelson about why she wrote her book two years ago, Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. A more recent 11-minute YouTube video is available from Grateful Living, entitled “Grateful Voices–Kristi Nelson.”

Joyful conspirators

Today, I’m thankful for Mike Harper, a friend since my undergraduate days and his seminary days, who died this week. We collaborated and sometimes conspired from school days well into retirement. On a study trip to Calcutta, he was part of a team that washed the destitute with the Missionaries of Charity. In a session with Mother Teresa, Mike asked why she didn’t engage in systems change efforts.

She patted Mike on the hand and said, “Maybe that’s what God is calling you to do.” Mike was always conspiring to improve the world. My favorite Mikey-ism: “There are two ways to be rich: get more or want less.” He said, “Every day is a good day to be born and every day is a good day to die.” He enjoyed telling how Carlyle Marney (1916-1978) once said to him, “Harper, you’re often wrong but never uncertain.”

I’m also thankful for Peggy Noonan, this year’s keynote speaker at New York’s Al Smith Dinner. She told about her great-aunt, Mary Jane Byrne, a devout Irish Catholic immigrant whose last years coincided with Noonan’s early life in New York City. Noonan, a Reagan Republican, honored four-term Democratic Governor Alfred E. Smith (1873-1944), a Roman Catholic and the Dems’ 1928 nominee for President.

Harper and Noonan, from very different places (geographically, theologically and politically), have worked for the healing of our nation and planet. I’m thankful for America’s freedoms of speech and religion, for our Constitution’s prohibition against a “religious test” for public office, and for those of various faiths and political views who work together to make life better for those who struggle.

From “Home Again, and Home Again, America for Me,” Peggy Noonan’s keynote address at the 2022 Al Smith Dinner, The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2022. (Her speech, with transcript, is available via YouTube.)

Veterans Day

To whom does it belong? That’s the grammatical question. If we called it Veteran’s Day, it would be a day that belongs to them. But, it’s a day that belongs to all of us. We observe Veterans Day because it’s a day for recognizing the veterans with us right now.

The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I in 1919. But the date that was remembered was November 11, 1918, the date when the warring nations agreed to cease fighting. They declared an “armistice,” a truce or ceasefire, that would begin at 11 am on November 11th.

So, it was remembered as Armistice Day, widely observed in Europe and North America in the years after the war. In 1926, Congress made November 11 a “recurring anniversary” known as Armistice Day to be “commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” It became a national holiday in 1938. After World War II and the Korean War, the name of this day was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.

From “The War to End All Wars? Hardly. But It Did Change Them Forever,” by Steven Erlanger, The New York Times, June 26, 2014

The gift of time

This morning I awoke with an appreciation for longevity. The privilege of accompanying relatives and friends through the latter stages of life has taken away my fear of old age. I’ve been inspired by those who have proactively exercised their agency deep into old age.

Later this morning I was part of an Old Testament discussion with some thoughtful, insightful souls, which included conversation about this quote from Erich Fromm’s You Shall Be As Gods:

…the Sabbath is the expression of the central idea of Judaism: the idea of freedom; the idea of complete harmony between humanity and nature, harmony among humans; the idea of the anticipation of the messianic time and of humanity’s defeat of time, sadness, and death.

My friend Marnie was intrigued by “humanity’s defeat of time….” Maybe Fromm meant freedom from the tyranny of time. We feel pressed. It may seem we have not enough time. We hurry, turning Highway 280 into the Talladega Speedway. Sabbath helps us recognize and prioritize the gift of time.

From “The Ancient Greeks had two words for time: Chronos and Kairos–the difference?Greek City Times, August 14, 2022

Fragments

Life, as I experience it, consists of multiple layers of reality. Each layer requires some of my/our attention all the time, and at times one layer will require a larger-than-usual share of my/our attention. At present, family ties are forefront as we help my aunt relocate to her new home.

Football, the stock market, current news events, myriad urgent pleas from Democrats for money, helping church friends understand the current trend toward congregationalism, thinking, writing, teaching, participating in several groups, email, phone calls–will resume and find a new balance.

For now, my consciousness of several layers is cursory and fragmented–bits and pieces of reality not in sharp focus at the moment. We all experience this disruption when illness, natural disaster, or some major life change occurs (childbirth, divorce, grief, job relocation, new residence, etc.).

My current fragmentary moment gives me great respect for my aunt’s inner strength and her ability to “hold it together” as the glue of memory becomes less reliable. We talk about family a great deal. I repeat her stories and sometimes she says, “I don’t think I know that story.” It’s re-membering.

As the world demands pseudo-certainty, I find humor and healing in that each of us is, all of us are, trying to hold it together. I’ll reflect on a few swirling fragments–one by one– in coming posts.

A hurricane has a way of re-ordering the various “layers” of one’s life. From “Three Ways to Build Back Smarter After Hurricane Ian,” by Elana Shao, The New York Times, October 3, 2022

Two fears

I have two great fears. One is that I may succumb to a creeping sense of entitlement, that I deserve the freedoms I enjoy, that I’m entitled to fast service even when stores are short on staff. The other fear is that I may succumb to a dullness, or–even worse–an absence of gratitude.

I try to read several free sources via email each day to cultivate gratitude and to avoid entitlement. These sources keep me on my toes. Every day at least one of these sources speaks to my heart and mind. On Monday, all of them did. That’s always a home run. I’m passing Monday’s gems on to you.

Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation “A Universal Connection” was one of his best. He puts the Big Picture into sharp focus in ways that inspire, illuminate and challenge.

Heather Cox Richardson’s October 2 installment of “Letters from an American” (emailed on October 3) put the daily mix of sublime and ridiculous news into a historical context that I can understand.

Robert B. Hubbell’s Today’s Edition Newsletter for October 3 was “Citizenship is an act.” He parses the legal and political issues with precision, clarity and a “can do” spirit of hope. He inspires me.

Joyce Vance, the latest addition to my daily inbox, writes Civil Discourse. Her October 3 communique’ was “The Week Ahead,” a synopsis of the critical legal issues in the news this week. She always ends her blog with, “We’re in this together.” And so we are!

We stayed, with gratitude, at three Harvest Host locations on this trip. One was Mohican Farms in New Jersey. That night, two camper guests stayed at the hillside edge of their cornfield with a beautiful view of the New Jersey countryside. We were in Big Al, the red and white camper on the left.

They probably never even knew it

I saw my four college years at a state school as a gift–from parents, taxpayers and donors. Three years of seminary were made possible by donors, including a scholarship. Congregations I served during those years provided income. At my church-affiliated graduate school, tuition for the new quarter was posted at the student center for the Schools of Dentistry, Law, Medicine and Theology. The theology tuition was considerably less, which someone noted by writing on the announcement, “Jesus saves.”

Kyle Whitmire’s AL.com opinion piece (cited below) was for me further evidence that love is the energy of the universe, often expressed through our collective generosity (or willingness to pay taxes). From a faith perspective, it’s all grace. Our son, who sent me Whitmire’s article, has struggled with a disability for over a decade. He calls beneficence unmerited favor. By whatever name, it’s a gift to be graciously received and “paid forward” so others can enjoy the fruits of generosity.

Whitmire cited comments by some in Alabama’s Congressional delegation who criticized President Biden’s student loan action. Whitmire said in 1980, Alabama student tuition covered 27% of the cost of higher education. Today’s students pay over two-thirds of the cost. Tuition has risen 485%. State appropriations have risen 8%. Whitmire wrote: “Back then, you didn’t have to hope for a bailout on the backend. These guys got their subsidized schooling upfront, and they probably never even knew it.

From “The hidden subsidy behind those old ‘bootstrap’ students,” by Kyle Whitmire, AL.com, August 26, 2022

Sentient beings

My engineer/scientist friend Ernie knows his way around the cosmos. He has helped numerous people grasp its history. Correction–make that our history. I objectified the universe, referring to our home as “it,” like a static thing in a museum, rather than our dynamic, evolving home. The James Webb telescope is sending us images of solar systems that are no longer existent. Lots can happen in a few billion years.

A few months ago I listened via Zoom to Ernie’s presentation about where earth fits into the history of the universe, and where humanity fits into the history of earth. My mind and my emotions were stirred when Ernie mentioned the unimaginable privilege we have to exist as sentient beings in the vast scope of the space and time represented by the universe.

Genesis 1 is a “great liturgical poem” about creation. Reflections about sentient beings are prominent in Buddhist thought. Sentience is a topic addressed by various doctors of philosophy. As I scratched the surface of this theme, I kept returning to two words, privilege and gratitude. As sentient beings, we have great opportunity to make a difference in this fleeting moment in our corner of space.

From “Creation,” Will Vinton Studio (1981), based on James Weldon Johnson’s 1922 poem “The Creation,” narrated by James Earl Jones, illustrated by Joan C. Gratz, a 7 1/2 minute video on YouTube

Stories

“From whence cometh my help” is a memory exercise. As the Webb telescope probes deeper into space, it reveals more of the Universe’s history. When I probe into my past, I find stories. The earliest ones were read to me from story books. When I was old enough to ask questions, grandparents and older neighbors answered with stories. The Bible, the Quran and other sacred writings contain records of who did what to whom, lists of rules, and (best of all) poems, songs and stories.

Some stories are more helpful than others. I invite you to ask yourself, “Which stories are helpful to me?” Which are your foundational stories? Mine include stories of leadership about people like Jethro and Moses. Some are familial, like my uncle describing his service in two world wars. Some are my stories, like listening to JFK’s inaugural address, or his Cuban missile crisis speech, or the Zapruder film of the presidential motorcade passing through Dealey Plaza.

Both sets of my grandparents had porch swings. My memory bank is full of stories heard while swinging, standing, or sitting on those porches. Some were stories of self-deprecating humor or good-natured poking at others. Laughter is therapeutic. The best stories are love stories. They help us find identity, a sense of belonging and gratitude for the gift of life. Good stories help us feel loved. They motivate us to love our fellow creatures. Which stories in your memory bank have helped you?

My Uncle Odie once said, “I’m the luckiest man alive. I was in two world wars and never hurt a soul. As an Army medic in his 40s, he survived the Bataan death march. This story about his contemporaries, 77 military nurses, gives a flavor of that difficult time. From “Nurse POWs: Angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” The National World War II Museum, May 5, 2021