The Joy of Gratitude
“Gratefulness is the inner gesture of giving meaning to our life by receiving life as gift. The deepest meaning of any given moment lies in the fact that it is given. Gratefulness recognizes, acknowledges, and celebrates this meaning.” This quotation is by Br. David Steind-Rast, OSB, one of the most articulate evangelists for gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving, and all those words that convey a reaching out into the world with arms wide open.
The spontaneous joy of engaging life’s nature as pure gift reminds me of the young two-year-old son of some very good friends of mine, who–years ago now–unselfconsciously brimmed over with life and mischief, climbing onto furniture and ledges with way-too-risky abandon, a smile on his face and giggles as companions, hugging people and things with the kind of joy that only children seem to be able to display with unvarnished transparency. Every moment was precious, was now, was embraced with love and palpable, infectious joy. Jesus’ words, “Let the children come to me . . .” suddenly made lots of sense. Children live with raw gratitude even while being significant recipients of the generosity of others. Both are very much alive.
Gratitude seems to me to be the flip side of generosity. With generosity, we express actions and intentions of unconditional love; with gratitude we receive actions and intentions of unconditional love. The best kinds of generosity are given unasked, unexpected, and previously unknown. The best kinds of gratefulness are received unasked, unexpected, and previously unknown. The most generous people tend to be the most grateful, and vice versa. Generosity and gratefulness appear to be two vectors of love’s living dynamic.
These same vectors are found in education and teachers. St. John Baptist de La Salle tells his teachers: “Thank God for the grace he has given you . . . and calling you to such a holy work of instructing children and leading them to piety.” And “Thank God, who has had the goodness to employ you to procure such an important advantage for children.” But this invitation to teachers to be grateful is a notion that is actually quite challenging. Our internal perspective may at times–among other people, of course; not ourselves–run more along the lines of “These kids should be grateful that they have me as a teacher . . . they don’t appreciate all the work that I do for them, how much time I put into the classes, and what I’ve given up to do this job well . . . they really don’t have a clue.” Such thoughts are based on a transactional approach to teaching; I do this for them, and they should do that for me. The vectors finally point inward.
Of course, most veteran teachers, although unfortunately not all, sloughed off that old cloak years ago and listen to such sentiments with a wry grin on their faces. They walk into most classes with genuine and daily gratitude, because by virtue of their years of experience they have been drawn into the deep generosity of teaching with all of its concomitant joys and blessings. They know that they plant seeds and that the growth comes from elsewhere. (Cf. 1 Cor. 3:6) Most students are never seen again, and so they will never know if those seeds had ever taken root. And if my experience is any indication of the experience of others, the things that did take root may not even have been the most obvious seeds. (I still wash and dry my hands like my 3rd grade teacher did in the corner of the classroom every morning.) Diving into the kind of arms-wide-open generosity that genuine teaching calls for cannot but coat one’s life with the cumulative gratitude that only steady or great love can bring, whether received or given.
Finally, teachers must step out of the way, trusting the generosity of God’s movement in the lives of their students. And that is something deserving our gratitude as well. It’s not all up to us. “Teaching is cooperative art similar to the nurturing that defines farming; involving watering, pruning where necessary, etc. It consists in developing a respect for mystery, a capacity for trust, and a skill in serious reflection. Through revelations and challenges, experiences and analyses, insights and application, others are led to develop habits of perception; to grind their lenses, as it were, so that the reality of God might be seen in focus and encountered in the full light of truth. Once a path for God is cleared and opened, the teacher steps aside and lets the mystery commence.” Stepping aside is a most generous thing, and gratitude for that particular thing may be the last seed dropped into students’ lives.
For a gratitude kick start, watch the Louis Schwartzberg video “Gratitude Revealed” and listen to Br. David Steindl-Rast’s narration. There is no better invitation to the joy of gratefulness.