There was a recent New York Times piece about gratitude in which it was pointed out that some people are genetically predisposed to be grateful (I would include joyful in that since they seem to be connected.) Apparently a 2014 study found a gene (CD38) that is a marker for an increased tendency toward gratitude. I can unequivocally, without a blood test, say that I do not possess this gene. I’m sure my father did. He always found something to be thankful for, and not just on Thanksgiving. Even after John Hinckley’s bullet almost ended his life, he spent no time on bitterness or anger. He went immediately to his belief that God had saved him for a purpose and he said he would dedicate the rest of his days to fulfilling that purpose.
But I did not inherit this genetic inclination. I have to work on gratitude. It’s a bit like emotional weight lifting, and sometimes the weight feels awfully heavy. At this time on the earth, I don’t think I’m alone in that. As Wordsworth wrote, “The world is too much with us.” We can’t silence the echoes of gunfire from Paris, or from our own soil — 16 shots fired into a black teenager, and obviously that’s only the most recent victim. How do we find gratitude when the world seems to be descending into darkness every time we check in with the news? How do we inch past our fears when we have so many reasons to be afraid?
Maybe gratitude is best practiced in small ways. Maybe, just like going to the gym and working our physical muscles by starting with lighter weights, we need to work our emotional musculature gradually. Find brief, immediate things that we can latch onto with a full heart and be grateful for. Last night the full moon floated outside my window. I woke up with silver bathing my face and it was easy to be grateful for such beauty. Hours earlier, as evening was falling and the moon was just emerging, my neighbor’s young son came running outside when he saw me with my dog Gracie. He happily rolled on the ground so she could climb on him and lick him, and he seemed oblivious to the fact that he was in his underwear and had quickly wrapped a blanket around himself. His mother and I laughed at the sheer joy of boy and dog rolling on the ground, and when I walked away I was thankful for laughter, and innocence, and friendship in my life.
We sometimes forget to be grateful for the people who have traveled miles and years alongside of us, who have quieted our tears and shared our joys. But they are angels in our lives, and our time here on earth would be desolate without them. This is a day dedicated to gratitude, but I hope, at least for myself, that I can carry that sentiment with me beyond this day — that I can pause often and reflect on the gifts in my life. I may not have been born with the gratitude gene, but I’m willing to work on developing gratitude muscles.