Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The virtue of gratitude

Proving again that there is no accounting for taste, I have heard some people say that they enjoyed my Thanksgiving column last year in the Journal Sentinel and are rereading it this year. I don't need that much of a hint to reproduce it here.

Abit over five years ago while shopping with my wife at Bayshore Mall, I suddenly felt as if I couldn't breathe. My face lost significant color. For someone as white as I am, that is no mean feat. It must have been hard to tell.

I found myself, some 30 minutes later, in the emergency room. My wife (a registered nurse) and her brother (a radiologist) stood together, reading my EKG and looking as if Brett Favre had announced his retirement.

They tried to tell me everything was OK.

Obviously lying. I made a mental note that someday I would get each of them into a game of high-stakes poker.

I was having, as they say, "The Big One." It turns out that I needed a quadruple bypass, a procedure that had to be done so urgently that I bumped an 89-year-old from the operating room because he was "more stable" than I was. That added insult to injury.

I came closer than most 44-year-olds to buying the farm, yet I remember one overriding thought during the ordeal.

It was "thank you."

This is not exactly the emotion I would have expected. I am generally not the type of guy who sees the glass as half full. Those who know me would be quick to tell you that I am decidedly not Mr. Sunshine.

So why "thank you"?

We think of gratitude as a debt we owe for favors received. It is the currency by which we compensate others - or, if we are so inclined, God - for whatever has been done for us. Giving thanks is simply honoring our end of a bargain.

We are thankful - or not - to the extent that we feel we have been - or have not been - blessed. Even those who urge us to be more thankful than we are argue that the key is to recognize that we are better off than we know.

This is, I think, incomplete. Gratitude is just as important when we are in life's troughs as when we are astride its peaks. The Roman orator Cicero thought gratitude to be not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all the others. It is not simply what we owe but the way in which we should live.

Living in a spirit of gratitude requires an acknowledgment that we are dependent, something that certainly comes hard to me and runs counter to a culture that has turned the "me decade" of the 1970s into the "me millennium" of forever.

But we are dependent on others - those who are with us today, those we never meet and those who have lived before us. I believe we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, dependent on God.

It may have taken a heart attack to teach me that.

My wife and I attend a church in downtown Milwaukee. We joke that our pastor says "thank you" more than any person on the face of the Earth. If you can do it, Pastor Amy can thank you for it. That she also seems to be happier than just about anyone else we know is not a coincidence.

I think she knows, and I learned the hard way, that to acknowledge the ways in which we are incomplete and in which we need something and someone outside ourselves frees us from the burden of needing to be perfect. Once we acknowledge that we cannot control all that happens to us and that we cannot create a perfect life, we are freed to do what we can do.

It may have taken a heart attack for me to learn that to be grateful for whatever gifts I have is far more important than to yearn after those I do not.

So take a moment today, between football and feasting (a nice Gew├╝rtztraminer, by the way, goes wonderfully with turkey), to cultivate a habit of gratitude. Not just today but every day. Not just when things go well but when they don't.

The Christian mystic Meister Eckhardt once said that if the only prayer that you say in your whole life is "thank you," it will be enough.

It will certainly be a good start.

Rick Esenberg of Mequon is an attorney and junior warden at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is


Anonymous said...

Nice column, Shark.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Thank you for the beautiful post.

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Rick Esenberg said...

Whoever the anonymous guy is who likes to tweak me for being divorced should know that 1) I'm not engaging on that and 2) I will delete all comments that go in that direction. If I thought it was pertinent to explain the circumstances of my divorce, you'd feel like an idiot, but I'm not going to do it for reasons that I have already explained.

Besides, who really cares about my particular circumstances other than my own family and friends? What does it have to do with whether any of the arguments I make are good or bad? Say I am a horrible cad who ditched my first wife for a hotter and younger number, that fact wouldn't make the arguments I made for the marriage amendment any weaker. Say my first wife ditched me for a hotter and younger number, that wouldn't make them any stronger.

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