The Discipline of Gratitude

Many of you who know me, would say that I am not a particularly religious person…in fact few of you probably know that I’m Jewish. That’s ok, because, although I am proud of my heritage, I believe that religion is a relatively personal thing that needn’t be advertised (my late grandmother taught me there are 3 things that should not be discussed in polite conversation: money, politics, and religion).

Both my parents are Jewish, but growing up I was exposed to two very different cultures. My mother is a first-generation American, whose family came here as World War II refugees. That side of the family spans the spectrum from Orthodox  to Conservative; many of them keep kosher, and all of them attend temple on a regular basis. My father’s family has been in the US so long that there is some dispute of our country of origin (my late grandmother always maintained that we were of German descent, but many think she was just trying to cover up Polish roots). Wherever they started, my great-great-grandparents ended up in Chicago in the middle of the 19th Century. There, in order to survive, they assimilated…my late grandmother, who was a theater actress, took the stage name Colbert (instead of Goldberg) and forbade her children from using Yiddish phrases (like “oy vey”). Members of this side of the family are Reform Jewish (the least traditional) if not agnostic, and few ever go to temple.

Growing up against this backdrop and being a student of philosophy, which owes many of its great works (Rene DescartesThomas Aquinas, David Hume, etc) to the inspiration of religion, I had a lot of data points on which to base my theories of religion. Behind the veneer of dogmatic faith that is the most visible and often problematic (a very wise man once told me that “all the trouble in the world is the fault of true believers”) aspect of religion, I believe there are two primary components: tradition and spirituality. My own practice of religion is a personal combination of the two, as exemplified by my observance of the High Holy Days this year: traveling to New York to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with my mother’s family at extremely Conservative Park East Synagogue and returning to LA for Yom Kippur, where we  attended services at the very Reform Temple of the Arts. While there are many things (and people) at Park East that I find distasteful, I am proud to sit in the seats that I shared with my late grandfather when I was younger and to carry on the traditions that were so important to him. And while some members of my family would likely scoff at Temple of the Arts’ avant garde service conducted mostly in English, I find Rabbi David Baron‘s flair for the dramatic (link irony) to be powerfully effective in evoking the spirit of Yom Kippur, especially in those who do not have the same connection to the traditions as myself.

All of this has been a long-winded introduction to talk about the speakers I heard at temple this Yom Kippur and the resonance of what I took from them. (I will digress a little more to give mad props to Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who gave a surprisingly provocative sermon on Rosh Hashanah that castigated his affluent and insular congregation for failing to take responsibility for their role in the problems that plague the world today [e.g. oil consumption].) The message of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is one of repentance, forgiveness, and renewal. Much like the Christian tradition of Confession or Lent, the 10 “Days of Awe” between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the time when through prayer, atonement, and charity your sins of the past year can be forgiven allowing you to enter the new year with a clean slate. In order for us to have such annual renewal among our fellow man as we are to have in the Book of Life, it is incumbent upon each of us to not only ask forgiveness from others but to do what can be even harder than that, forgive those who have hurt us.

Rabbi Baron always does an excellent job of finding speakers with particularly poignant personal experience with the theme of the day. A few years ago, he arranged for Scott Waddle, commander of the USS Greenville when it sunk the Japanese fishing trawler Ehime Maru, to speak about his story of repentance. This year, Hillary Clinton spoke to the congregation (pictured) on a subject of great personal significance to her, forgiveness. Though people are having little trouble drawing a connection between Senator Clinton’s West Coast tour and rumors of her presidential candidacy, she spoke sincerely and eloquently about her journey of discovery on the road to forgiveness (a few elegant euphemisms were the only references to the impetus for this journey).

She began by telling the story of Nelson Mandela‘s inauguration, at which he asked three particular guests, among hundreds of dignitaries, to rise so he could thank them for coming. They were three of his prison guards on Robben Island, where he spent much of his 27 years in jail. Senator Clinton went on to tell of how, on a subsequent trip when she had the opportunity to spend some more time with Mandela, she asked him about this. She said that she understood how such a gesture was politically expedient at the time, when Mandela was trying to preside over a peaceful transition from Apartheid, but she could not fathom how he was able to sincerely forget what was done to him and forgive those who were instruments of his oppression. In response, Mandela told her of a particular day when he was smashing limestone in the quarry on Robben Island, his blows fueled in no small part by the hatred he felt for both those who were the instigators and the executioners of his torment. He said that on that day, he reflected on everything that they had taken from him, his freedom, his friends, his family…and he realized that all he had left that they couldn’t take were his heart and mind. He realized, by remembering, not forgetting, everything his enemies had done and every hardship he had to endure, that if he came through it all with hatred on his mind and bitterness in his heart, there would have been no point to any of his suffering.

Forgiveness, as Senator Clinton knows from her own experience, is hard work. Our natural instinct is to inflict pain on those who have hurt us, forgiving is a triumph of reason over emotion; in the words of Aristotle, it is one of those things that separate true happiness from mere contentment. In many ways, forgiving is a selfish act. It enables one to move on from the hurt and enjoy the life’s pleasures instead of dwelling in past pains. After her Mandela story, Senator Clinton spoke of the many other influences that helped her to make peace with those who had wronged her. Among these was the very Yom Kippur service in which she was participating, as well as the writings of a Dutch priest and philosopher, named Henri Nouwen. In Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, he writes of “the discipline of gratitude,” a phrase that immediately resonated with me. It is an incredibly elegant phrase that concisely captures the difficulty of resisting the natural inclination to take life for granted. Training ourselves to appreciate every day as a gift is necessary preparation for the hard work of forgiveness.

Now, it shouldn’t take any half-way decent first-year philosophy student more than 30 seconds to make a logical attack on the conclusion for which I appear to be to be heading, the assertion (popularized by the Christian Right) that life is so inherently precious that it is not within the mortal purview to end it. I therefore concede the boundary cases, like that of Terry Schiavo, where the likelihood of mitigating suffering is so low that a personal judgment call must be made. However, I do hold that no matter how slim the chance, as long as there is life there is always a chance for things to get better. Whether or not humans should be allowed to close that door for themselves (suicide) or others (abortion, euthanasia), is controversial and not material to this conversation. What is incontrovertible is the fact that we cannot open the door on our own and we often have little control over when it will be closed forever. No matter how tortured your existence today, the fact that there is a tomorrow in which you might have a chance to improve your situation is something for which we each should be grateful.

This message of gratitude for the daily opportunity of renewal that life grants us was driven home by the second speaker of the day, Aron Ralston. Aron is the hiker who cut off his own right hand in 2003 in order to free himself after being trapped for 6 days in a canyon in Utah. I had heard of his story, and I was admittedly a bit squeamish about sitting through a recounting of the gory details. But instead of talking about what he had done, Aron talked about why he did it. In that canyon, he made a conscious decision to keep living, knowing that it would be a very different life than the one he had led up to that point. Recognizing that he would be handicapped for the rest of his days, Aron decided that just having those days and the opportunities that come with them mattered more. When he spoke, there was not a hint of self-pity, there was no regret or sense of loss. Aron has mastered the discipline of gratitude; he thinks not of what he lost but what he gained…in fact, he says that this incident was the best thing that ever happened to him. Reading this, it may be hard to believe that he really feels this way, but I watched and listened closely, and I believed him. In closing, Aron quoted a passage from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 30:19, and I will do the same:

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

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