During the month of October, it was impossible to go anywhere with anyone without one of you interrupting the conversation, pointing a finger, and saying, “Look at that.”
That would be a tree – a golden or bright red maple, a silvery red sourwood, a reddish brown oak, a green turning to yellow turning to brown beech – a stretch of road lined by trees, or a mountainside full of trees. You’d be riding along, talking about what you needed from the grocery, or the story somebody told you, or what you were doing later, and there it would be, this joyful marriage of light from the sky and color from the earth. If you were passenger you might touch the driver on the arm. If you were driving you might slow down or stop. But one of you would say it. “Look at that.”
These were enchanted moments, wellings up of wonder joined with the impulse to connect. They were what worship should be like, and sometimes is. They were also entirely spontaneous. Nobody woke up thinking, “I’m gonna look for just the right moment to say ‘look at that’ to somebody today.” There was no thinking to it, no planning. It was involuntary, like turning your head when someone calls your name. And as with other things we do involuntarily – breathing, digesting, pumping blood – I think these moments serve some kind of survival function. Our bodies and spirits are made well by the sharing of wonder. Wonder is, in this sense, literally a well-ing up.
Last week I heard a friend say that gratitude is not natural, that it’s a practice we must cultivate intentionally. His point was that our brains have a negativity bias, that evolution favors the brain looking for a tiger in the bushes over the brain looking for the next outrageously gorgeous bird. Worry is natural, he said, but thanksgiving is not. Thanksgiving is good for us, but it must be learned.
He has a point, I suppose, but I disagree. I think gratitude is natural. I think it’s what we do instinctively, organically, and reflexively in the presence of Beauty, Truth, and Love. The only qualifiers I’d add are things like “when we’re safe,” “when we’re not in pain,” “when we’re not overly stressed,” and “when we’re not self-absorbed.” When, for whatever reasons, we feel unsafe, exhausted, or lost in Project Me, gratitude and all sorts of healthy, natural impulses become disordered. But I’ll tell you: no matter how scared, stressed, or self-absorbed you are, when you round the corner and see the sun hitting a tree just right, it’s near impossible not to fall off the wagon and end up drunk with amazement.
People sometimes tell me they couldn’t do my job. “It would depress me to listen to peoples’ problems all day.” To be sure, there is plenty of darkness in a therapist’s day, and sometimes it does weigh on me. But truth is, there is way more light, and most days I’m wishing I didn’t have to live with the requirement of confidentiality so I could shout far and wide all the beautiful and amazing things I watch people do all day: Hold up and hang in through all sorts of suffering. Take small steps in the direction of hope even though experience has made it difficult for them to hope. See the damage they’ve done, feel empathy and ache for the folks they’ve hurt, say “I’m sorry,” and try to make amends. Leave the safety of resentment and contempt, take a chance on forgiveness, and make themselves available to love again. Transform, before my very eyes, from collapsed, depressed, and afraid, to upright, radiant, and powerful. Approach death with gentleness and courage. Stay close to another while she’s dying. These are wonders magnificent as any tree, and I am blessed to watch them happen.
Alice Walker once wrote, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t. I’m not arguing with Alice Walker about God. What’s unquestionably true, in my view, is this: it is good to notice.
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, the one-hundred-fifty-third since President Lincoln declared it a federal holiday in 1863. Many of us will gather with loved ones, in a warm room, over good food. Some will share the day with neighbors who live in shelters or refugees who might receive no other gesture of welcome. All of us will likely think about the people and other realities of our lives for which we’re grateful. And whether that happens intentionally, by Lincoln’s prompting, or spontaneously, by God’s, the world around us and the world inside us becomes more colorful. And when that happens, well, look at that.