It’s been another grueling week in our country, which culminated yesterday in the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as the Supreme Court’s 114th justice despite serious concerns about his honesty, temperament, and treatment of women.
Another grueling week, which saw thousands of protestors in Washington and millions around the country, protesting the fact that their bodies and stories are not being respected, not being believed.
Grueling, in that we also saw the story spun in a way that was calculated to enrage the conservatives of our country. That story being one of a politics of personal destruction that ended up ruining a good man’s name.
Our country is full of collisions. Has been full and is even fuller than before.
So how dare I even touch my topic for this morning, which is gratitude?
When the problems feel so big, what’s there to be grateful for?
Doesn’t gratitude at a time like this even smack of self-indulgence?
Well, I want to invite your attention to something that happened at the U.S. Capitol last Friday morning, after Senator Jeff Flake announced his support for Kavanaugh. Senator Flake was in an elevator, about to ride away, when two sexual assault survivors confronted him on video. They blocked the elevator doors. They had their say. Their names are Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher.
Here’s part of what they said:
(Ana Maria Archila): On Monday, I stood in front of your office [inaudible]. I told the story of my sexual assault. I told it because I recognized in Dr. Ford’s story that she is telling the truth. What you are doing is allowing someone who actually violated a woman to sit on the Supreme Court. This is not tolerable. You have children in your family. Think about them. I have two children.
I cannot imagine that for the next 50 years they will have to have someone in the Supreme Court who has been accused of violating a young girl. What are you doing, sir?
(Maria Gallagher): I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them you are going to ignore them. That’s what happened to me, and that’s what you are telling all women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth, you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.
That’s what you’re telling all of these women. That’s what you’re telling me right now. Look at me when I’m talking to you. You are telling me that my assault doesn’t matter, that what happened to me doesn’t, and that you’re going to let people who do these things into power. That’s what you’re telling me when you vote for him. Don’t look away from me.
Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me, that you will let people like that go into the highest court of the land and tell everyone what they can do to their bodies.
That’s part of what they said. It would be for them one of the first times they had ever publicly shared their sexual assault story. They did that out of gratitude to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s courage in doing the same.
And we know what happened later. Senator Flake surprised everyone by calling for a week-long independent FBI investigation of the charges against Kavanaugh. I know that there are serious questions about this investigation and its effectiveness. But it was something, and he was moved to change his mind by these two brave women.
And I am grateful, grateful to them, for saying, repeatedly, Do not look away.
Are you grateful to them too?
Now hold on to that feeling of gratitude. Breathe into that gratitude, deepen into it.
What is the energy of gratitude? What work does it do on our lives?
For one thing, it creates hope.
Someone has said that even the smallest boat can ride rough waters if none of that water gets inside.
Gratitude is what bails the water and keeps the inside of the boat dry. Gratitude is what makes for buoyancy.
In a time when the waters of our nation are incredibly rough, hearing what those women did makes me feel like our little boat isn’t going to sink, that hope is not lost, that maybe we lost this fight but that doesn’t tell the story about who will win the war, and who will lose.
Gratitude is powerful.
It’s also powerful because it reminds us, second of all, that the work of justice is not on our shoulders alone.
Remember the words of the Rev. Ralph Helverson that we heard earlier? “We have religion when we stop deluding ourselves that we are self-sufficient, self-sustaining, or self-derived.”
Gratitude towards those two powerful woman means that we honestly acknowledge that we can’t do this work alone. We can’t be everywhere all at once. We have to count upon others. We have to trust others. Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher were in the right place at the right time, and they said words that needed to be said, and we can trust that there will be others who will do the same.
Did you, by the way, notice how the two women did what they did out of gratitude to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony?
Which suggests yet a third way that gratitude is powerful. It inspires generosity. They were moved to give their gift of witness, because she did.
When we are helped, and feel thankful for it, we effortlessly offer our help to others.
There are scientific studies that actually demonstrate this. In her amazing book Active Hope, Joanna Macy shares the some of the research of American psychologist Alice Isen. It’s from back in the 1970’s, so her experimental set-up includes a form of technology that is going to sound strange to some of you: pay phones that you put coins in, to use.
In this experiment, “coins were left in public phone booths so that the next person using them would get a free call. When the person had finished and was leaving the phone booth, one of the experimenters appeared to accidentally drop a file of papers just in front of the subject. The process was repeated near phone booths that hadn’t been primed with coins. People who received the unexpected lucky gift of a free phone call were much more likely to help the experimenter pick up her papers.” Joanna Macy concludes: “This experiment, and a host of others like it, suggests that our willingness to act on behalf of others isn’t just attributable to some people being good-natured and others less so. Our readiness to help others is influenced by the level of gratitude we experience.”
By now, has your mind changed if you thought that feeling gratitude in a time like this is self-indulgent?
A little bit of gratitude goes a long way, and that way is beyond our isolated egos and towards connection with something larger than ourselves. Love persists, despite all, when we hold on to a hope beyond ourselves, when we trust others, and when we are generous.
There is a reason why gratitude is at the center of the spiritual life. It’s not something that comes after everything else, as an afterthought. It comes first, and from it, all good things flow.
So now we turn to the question of how to practice gratitude.
It’s the question that looms large in the story for all ages we heard earlier, “The Happy Man’s Shirt.” This old Italian folktale introduces us to a King and a Queen of a prosperous kingdom, and it so happens that the King finds himself irritable and angry all the time. The Queen is relentless in her investigation as to why. Is he physically sick? No, say all the doctors, from near and far away, and then one doctor raises his voice and pronounces the King a victim of “melancholia”: a sickness of the heart and spirit.
And THEN this doctor prescribes the cure: find the shirt of a truly happy person. Take it from him, put it on the King, problem solved.
Hearing this, the King says, “Oh, that’s easy!”
But is it? As easy as retail therapy—and we know how quickly the good feelings from retail therapy vanish away. It’s not going to be effective in healing the King’s melancholia, or anyone else’s for that matter.
The story drives the point home as it ends with the discovery of a truly happy person, whom we hear say, “I am grateful for everything I have, and I don’t desire what I cannot have.”
This man wears no shirt at all.
The King, and everyone, must learn how to generate happiness—gratitude—from within.
The key is learning to extend appreciative attention out into the world. To do this regularly and reliably.
A poem by Mary Oliver, entitled “The Summer Day,” is a beautiful illustration of this:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
That’s the poem. Gratitude is like an electricity that builds and builds the more one attends to what is actually happening around oneself, and leaving nothing out. Mary Oliver is 83 now—she is still alive—and she lives in an America where Kavanaugh has been confirmed as a Supreme Court justice, and that still hurts, but that is not going to stop her from attending to the miracle of a grasshopper on her hand, eating sugar, moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down, who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes…
It’s a bit like the proverbial fish learning how to become more aware of the water that surrounds it, which proverbial fish are supposed to take for granted. It’s reversing that. It’s looking again at your old world with new eyes, and paying attention.
It doesn’t have to take the form of poetry. It doesn’t have to be about grasshoppers in nature. One beautiful gratitude-raising activity can happen, for example, around the dinner table. Each person seated around the table is invited to share one thing for which they are grateful. It can be for that day, for the last week, or just in general. Sometimes folks can go around the table a second time, and they can play off of or build on what the others have shared.
This is a great gratitude-raising practice, and if you do it, you’ll feel the positive electricity lift your spirit and give it buoyancy and give it a sense of connection to something larger.
Or try this: learn about more of the story. Learning about the two women confronting Jeff Flake in the elevator added, for me, a precious positive detail to the whole sad story about Kavanaugh’s confirmation process, and we need to hear those details.
But one’s quest to learn more can be about anything. For example, take the case of your skin. Religious scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz writes about this, saying, “It has been found that the skin and brain develop from the same primary tissue layer in the fetus–the primary ectoderm. As this layer unfolds, it begins to contact the larger universe through the skin in the effort to organize our entire nervous system. … That is, the organization of our neural pathways seems to proceed from outside-in rather than inside-out. This means that our touching, feeling, sensing and making sound as infants is, in large part, an attempt to organize our nervous systems through a contact with “out-thereness.” This model also accounts for the common, but previously unexplained, phenomena of infants “wasting away” due to touch starvation. So-called “sensory malnutrition” prevents the nervous system from properly organizing itself by [cutting off] contact with the rest of the universe.”
Now just listen to that. A direct brain-skin connection. Who knew? The revelation makes me look at my skin with different eyes now, grateful eyes. From now on, when there is an infant among us in this space, and they are wriggling about and making noise and perhaps being a distraction, we may just need to pause and witness a holy thing unfolding: a child attempting to organize its nervous system from the outside-in, on the basis of what they are feeling on their skin….
As with skin, so with everything: everything has hidden depths which are ready to amaze, if we are willing to take a closer look.
Every story we hear has more to the telling, if we are willing to lean in.
And the resulting astonishment and awe that well up within us is like a pressure that moves us to ask, with Mary Oliver
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Despite all the problems in this world, so many gifts from so many directions are coming to us, to sustain us, to bring us to this very moment here and now. If we are paying attention, with gratitude on our hearts, we must ask of ourselves, “Alright, what will my gift back to the world be?”
In the face of injustice, who must I confront, to whom must I say, “Do not look away”?
In the face of beauty, how must I pay attention, and praise?
In the face of what I just think I know, how will I look deeper, and come away amazed?
Never forget, the life you have been given—it is wild, and it is precious.
What will your gift back to the world be?