Sunday, June 25, 2006

Teaching and learning gratefulness

I found myself perusing the website today and I came across Br. David Steindl-Rast's answer to the question of whether it is possible to teach gratefulness. The questioner thought a person is either grateful or not grateful. Here's Br. David's answer:
Well, it is true that some people may seem less gifted with regard to being grateful. The reasons could be that they’re just generally less alert to life around them; or they may feel a strong need for independence; or they may be emotionally scarred.

It takes a certain level of alertness to recognize the gift character of any situation, person, or thing. Recognizing isn’t even enough. We must acknowledge our interdependence with others before we can genuinely enjoy the give-and-take which sparks gratefulness. We must also be emotionally ready. If we have been made to feel rejected and left out, it may be difficult to truly celebrate gift giving and receiving.

But there is good news: Yes, it is indeed possible to teach and learn gratefulness. A good starting point is surprise. We can cultivate surprise at waking up to another day, surprise at whatever the weather happens to be that day, surprise that there is anything rather than nothing! How come? And how come we don’t think to ask “how come” more often?

Children have a natural ability to marvel. They are little philosophers in this respect, for, as Plato said, all philosophizing starts with wonderment. It is easy to encourage children to look at the world with amazed eyes. For teaching and learning gratefulness, a magnifying glass can be an invaluable tool. Another teaching aide is a simple soap bubble blower, which contains several thousand incentives for wonderment.

Of course, in order to be taught, it is necessary to want to learn. But who would not want to learn, once they see that the smallest act of gratefulness triggers immediate feedback.

Gratefulness unlocks joy. Nothing that we take for granted gives us joy. Yet the smallest surprise, received gratefully, yields a harvest of delight. As a teacher, you can look for moments of wonder, multiply moments of wonder, to share with your students -- children or adults -- so that even the crustiest and most hardened among them suddenly catches on to the fact that whatever there is, is pure gift.

In Daniel 12:3, we read, “Those who show many the way to life will shine forever like the stars in the firmament.” What better way to a fuller life than teaching gratitude? I can just see the eyes of children light up like stars as gratitude takes hold of their hearts. And to think that this multitude of stars will sparkle forever!

I like the idea of being surprised by ordinary things and framing that as a positive - as something for which to be grateful. Try being grateful also for your meditative practice. Give thanks at the very beginning of your daily sitting that you are about to meditate and for the training in meditation that you have received. This is a wonderful routine to establish and we will find that we are more easily made grateful by all sorts of little things.


  1. Anonymous11:20 AM

    Reading this made me sad for our children of today. For instead of encouraging them to look at the world with amazement, we squash it as early as possible. Amazement and wonder require not only a sense of imagination, but also time. Time to observe that which is amazing and surprising. Instead we regiment and fill their time as much as posssible. Where is the time for them to just watch with amazement the world around them? Maybe one of the great gifts we can give to our world is to give back to the children that which should have always been theirs--the right to be surprised and filled with amazement.

  2. Yes, I agree with you, Anonymous. I'm very fortunate to have had a childhood in which I had a lot of free time to explore and just to be. I think that accounts at least in part for the abiding sense of wonder I still have today.


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