Gratitude Needs Practice

by Stephen Jenkinson

It’s dark. You are standing in a field, far from the house. This is the midnight sky of your younger, wilder days. It is ablaze, aching with stars. It is the vault of heaven, indigo sea of time pierced by light from the other side. The horizons are gone and the Bridge of Sighs, the one they say the dead walk to leave this world, dazzles you. Dew settles on your shoulders and you’re atremble, no longer full with comprehension and certainties. Every idea you have seems too small for the world. The blessings tumble. You lived long enough to see a night such as this, and you’re stilled by it. There are unlikely companions in the field with you, everyone quiet. Someone looks up into the night sky and says, “You see that star right there? Could be it isn’t there anymore.” All conviction is sent reeling. Nothing is truer than this. The mysteries roll. You are welcome. If that didn’t quite happen in your earlier days, it has now. If it did, then it’s happened again.

You need witnesses for wonder. Some things in life are too hard to see by yourself because they take up the whole sky, or because they happen every day, unwinding above your busyness, or because you thought you knew them already. Wonder takes a willingness to be uncertain, to be thrown. We have a lot of information these days, and few are enamored of imprecision or subtlety. But starlight traveling a bewildering distance for so long that there is every chance that it doesn’t even exist anymore, and all of that having already happened, and you standing there, your face blazed in the dark by a starlight gone, seeing it all, what is and what isn’t there enthroned by your witness: That is a marvel, and surely that is how awe is born in us. With somebody there alongside you in the darkness, you can think unauthorized thoughts. You can see what’s gone, or whether it’s gone, or both. Fantastic.

A book about dying is a book awash in the great mystery of what is to become of us, and so it is a book about time. A book about dying should wonder again and over again whether the river of time and life flows toward the future and the not-yet and carries us there, as most of us are taught, or toward the past and the known, toward all who have been, as some of us suspect. The night of wonder must be a long one, and sometime before dawn it will come to this: When I die, am I past? Am I gone? Lost?

This is when the midnight sky, riven by all the light givers that have been, starts whispering. You can see something that isn’t there anymore, and you have more proof than you need that the past is not quite passed. So I am counting on this possibility: That out of that encounter with confounding starlight could come marvel and gratitude for being here, alive, for now, and with them come the beginnings of an answer to that bewilderment, that human-scaled mystery: What will happen when I die? I’m counting on more: The times of dying, of real and proper sorrow, could be woven by a gratitude for being around long enough to be overwhelmed by something that happens every day, by ordinary awe. And each of us could be gathered in by the raveling covenant of sorrow and thanksgiving as our days end. Here’s what happens every day: The past has tangible presence and isn’t gone. People are born, and people die, and there are signs.

Gratitude needs practice, though. Gratitude for the things that don’t seem to help, that aren’t sought out or welcome—that’s a demanding kind, and it is needed in hard times. A book about dying should have that kind of gratitude in it, bleeding through from the other side of sorrow. Drink enough of the sweet, strong mead of grief and love for being alive and it isn’t long before you’re sending a trembling, life-soaked greeting out to everything that came before you and to everything that will follow, a kind of love letter to the Big Story.

You’re even willing to include yourself and your days going by in the roiling mystery of it all, not as alone as you once were. And this willingness is a gift for those who see you trying to pull it off and for those who are coming after you who might hear of your one bewildered human example. It’s all they’ll need, a sign of how a human can live his or her days. All of this from looking into the night sky and seeing what’s mysteriously there to see, what is there and what is gone, with witnesses.

Maybe this swirl of awe and marvel and good intent for the world and gratitude for ourselves in it is where all the religions came from. That is where our feel for the sacred in the world is conjured, surely, the ordinary, staggering mystery of where it all comes from before it is born here among us and where it all goes after it dies away from us, the starry midnight courtship of the heart that whispers, “What is gone is “still with you, still here. As you will be.”

–by Stephen Jenkinson except from his book “Die Wise”


About pancho

To live in radical joyous shared servanthood to unify the Earth family.
This entry was posted in ahimsa, anarchism, anarchy, fearlessness, natural philosophy, soulforce and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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