Nothing dramatic happened today. I just woke up conscious and breathing while 100 million neurons began their daily dance with the other 10 trillion of my cells, and by the way that’s not counting the 100 trillion cells I'm carrying around that aren’t human but are dancing with me anyway, or that all this dancing came to pass after my ancestors spent 2½ billion years figuring out how to be better dancers. Nothing to see here. Just go back to sleep.
But I can’t sleep. Because even though there is a seemingly infinite list of very large reasons to be grateful, for me the feeling of gratitude is often as elusive as a bittern in brown cattails, tiny kinglets flitting high in conifers, or gray mule deer bedded in sagebrush. Yet Gratitude wants to dance. With me. She keeps coming back around, looking over at me in my chair along the wall. I don’t wanna to dance. The thought of dancing with Gratitude makes me self-conscious. Maybe if I knew her better, if I had lived next door or she were my sister or cousin or coworker, if everyone else I knew were dancing, then I wouldn’t be self-conscious. Then I could dance.
Rather than say no just because I don’t feel like dancing, maybe I should think this one through. I’m thinking that I should drag myself out of my comfortable curmudgeonly chair where I keep the wallflowers watered, that I should partner up with Gratitude and go for it. A-one-and-a-two-and-a … slow, slow, quick, quick. While I sit and think, writer David Whyte flows by with Gratitude in his arms:
[Gratitude] is not a passive response to something given to us, gratitude is being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.
At first I avert my eyes from the beauty of the words in motion, cringe in self-doubt. Then I force myself to watch the dancers, try to learn the steps, to understand. A priori state. Gifted nature of life. I place my first tentative foot forward. The gifts have been, are, and will be given, regardless of how I feel or whether I understand them. Oxygen molecules surge through my lungs and my cells are already dancing. Slow, slow. My life is a gift that came to me from other life that came before me and lives around me. These things have already happened and are happening. Nothing about this reality is altered by how I feel. My feelings about dancing are beside the point. All that is required is my attention to the facts of my existence. Quick, quick. The complex rational music of science tells me that some portion of 3 million bits of DNA is organized into 25,000 functioning genes all packaged into 23 chromosomes that have been waltzing together nearly flawlessly since I was conceived. This focus on facts seems ironic, because generally I think that emotion, rather than knowledge, is the juice that keeps us moving, the electricity that sparks action.
But in this case, I’m looking for anchor points to the rock-solid, fundamental state of gratitude that exists beyond my feelings. What if I were to commit to a dance with Gratitude? Cross-thinking often helps. Sometimes we feel as though we are “in love.” Yet most of us will admit that there are those mornings when we wake up grouchy after a lousy night’s sleep, look at the person next to us, and feel nothing but a compulsion to be alone. Sometimes we feel as though we’ve done the dishes or picked up the dirty underwear or vacuumed the floors one too damn many times. But our long-term relationship to that person is not based on one bad morning or too many dirty dishes. It is the commitment to love that keeps us in the game, carries us through these emotional missteps. For me, gratitude is like love. Sometimes I feel grateful. Often I don’t. But I can recognize and commit to the idea that every breath I take on this outrageously blue rock brimming with life supporting my life while hurtling through lifeless space is a gift. This reality of my existence is beyond my feelings in any moment.
A commitment to gratitude strikes me as something like faith. This is faith in its broadest sense, the trust a two-year-old places in his parents to have that bowl of oatmeal ready every morning. Faith isn’t necessarily blind; it simply calls me to recognize that I’m alive, right now. I just took a breath. Then another. I took a lot of breaths before that one, and a multitude of breaths were taken by my ancestors who were breathing before me. I won’t breathe forever, but today I do. I trust there is another breath coming and commit to being thankful for it.
Nearly two thousand years ago, Paul wrote on faith, hope, and love. Should gratitude be placed on this list of elemental emotions, emotions so fundamental to the human experience that they supersede feeling? Do we decide to have faith or to feel faithful? Do we decide to be hopeful or to feel hope? Do we decide to love or to feel love? Do we decide to be grateful or to feel gratitude? In all cases, I think the answers are yes and yes. Not necessarily in that order.
All of this decision-making and commitment to gratitude seems awfully bullheaded. Then something of a miracle happens. Gratitude returns to where I am sitting. She is clad in a blue-green gown swirling like fog chased by sunlight. She is bolder this time, reaching one arm toward me. I take her hand, begin to stand, and am lifted from my chair. Slow, slow, quick, quick. Beyond my writing window a flamingo sunrise lifts his head, then stretches pink wings across the eastern sky.
Gratitude and I are dancing.
It feels wonderful.