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Different Kinds of Gratitude

At Thanksgiving, we show appreciation for the gifts we worked for, prayed for and received unbidden

posted by Akiko Busch, February 27, 2013 More by this author

A tattoo of gratitude on an arm.

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013.


A tattoo of gratitude on an arm.
Giselle 13/Creative Commons 2.0
We residents of New York's mid-Hudson Valley are no strangers to extreme weather. Tropical rains, ice storms, winter blizzards and rampaging nor’easters have all been visited upon us, and power outages lasting three, four or five days are, if not routine, something we are acquainted with well. We know about downed power lines, fallen trees, road closures. So when we heard about Hurricane Sandy making its way up to the Northeast, we took the warnings seriously.
 
We wasted no time getting additional batteries for the flashlights, moving the car to a place where it would not be crushed by a felled pine, stocking up on non-perishable food and collecting water from our well. We filled two outdoor garbage pails with water from the garden hose for bathing, washing dishes and flushing toilets. We filled pitchers in the bathroom for brushing teeth and washing faces. Then in the kitchen, we filled pots with water for cooking. And under the counter, we stored several gallon jugs of drinking water.

This time around, Sandy missed our little patch of Upstate, its ravages blowing in below us, circling around and above us. We didn’t lose power for even a minute. But it has taken me weeks to pour out the water we had collected. All these assorted containers of water have come to serve as souvenirs of our sufficiency, our lucky break, and something in me wanted to keep them around.
 
When my husband finally dumped the garbage pails, I was certain that we were squandering a precious resource. And even though the minerals in our well water make it go flat within days, as I poured the last drops from the pot on the stove, I questioned our improvidence and had a nagging feeling that we were wasting something costly.
 
Don’t for a minute think that we were disappointed at having missed the full devastating force of the superstorm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every time I switched on a lamp, filled the kettle or turned on my laptop, a surge of gratitude rushed through me. This time calamity rerouted itself, and we were spared. Yet despite the grand sense of relief that washed over me so often in the days following the storm, I still couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility that all our preparations had been for naught.

(MORE: Think Positive, Be Happier: The Invaluable Lessons of 'Pollyanna')

Different Things to Be Grateful For

Just to the south of us, families remained without power, electricity, heat and water for more than a week. Others farther away lost their homes entirely. Forever. And others still lost their lives. Maybe it is in the nature of catastrophe to be random, but it causes me to wonder about how we try to shore things up to manage life’s blows, despite our inability to gauge when and how they will come.

The relationship between what we expect and what then happens is one of perpetual imbalance and disparity. The calculus of having what we need when we need it seems almost impossible to master.
 
When I finally drained the last cup of water from the enamel pitcher I had set by the sink so many days ago, it seemed worth remembering that having too much isn’t just the result of careful planning, predicting, strategizing and organizing. Rather, such luxury can be a matter of pure chance, the kind of unexpected good fortune that can’t be hoarded or put into reserve any more than the water in the pitchers and pots. Now, in this season of thanks, it’s probably a good time to note that sometimes we get what we ask for as well as what we never expected.
 
Which makes me think there may be two kinds of gratitude as well, and it is a distinction to acknowledge. There is the appreciation you feel when you are given what you have petitioned for and worked toward, when you are rewarded with the outcome you have done your best to earn.

Then there is the different thankfulness for the dumb luck that delivers a coincidental gift you never even imagined: an extreme weather event that veers off your path or a chance “direct hit” with a friend, colleague or complete stranger that redirects your path for the better. 

Sometimes we work hard and receive; other times we just receive. In the best of times, both things happen. “If the only prayer you say in your life is ‘thank-you,’ that would suffice,” the German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote in the 14th century. Sometimes you need to say this twice. Sometimes even more.
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