Winter 2024 Letter

Winter 2024 Letter

Dear friends,

We have just passed the holiday season and we stand at the beginning of a new year, one that promises to be, to say the least, contentious. We could spend much time thinking about the roots of that contention, taking sides, and being sucked into the vortex of anxiety of the modern world. But we already do plenty of that, so I propose to consider something different. I would like us to reflect for a moment on the meaning of gratitude.

As is often the case with reflections, it is important to begin by clarifying concepts. When I say gratitude, I don’t mean it in the sense that self-help manuals would use it: as the mindful exercise of listing and being thankful for what we have. Airport bookstores are already filled with enough examples of this kind of gratitude, and I’d like to suggest that this “self-help gratitude” is superficial and perhaps even opposed to true gratitude. The problem with this “self-help gratitude” is that it is self-serving. It is a product that is sold to the masses to make people feel good, in an era where there is a great void of meaning. Unlike any traditional structure of morality, this gratitude is easy to accept because it demands nothing of us other than practicing the relatively simple habit of being thankful for what we have. It is, of course, not wrong to be thankful for the things we have, but the problem here is that “self-help gratitude” obscures the true meaning of gratitude.

This understanding of gratitude discloses a thoroughly banal way of viewing the world—one in which the only thing that matters is the will, opinion, and mood of individuals, one where meaning has been privatized to whatever we want it to be, one in which we are only grateful for things that we deem worthy of our gratitude. We are the judges, the masters, and the rulers of reality, and we choose to dispense gratitude to whatever has proven itself useful to us. This gratitude is pride in sheep’s clothing. It is as fleeting and unreliable as any mood. We are either feeling grateful or we are not, but in the end, when tragedy strikes (which is when one needs gratitude the most) it vanishes into the air, like the smoke it always was.

The gratitude I propose is entirely different. It is a fundamental and radical gratitude. It is not just a feeling but a way of understanding reality. It discloses that reality is something larger than us, a world full of enchantment and meaning in which we participate, first and foremost through our gratitude. This gratitude is indeed the only appropriate response to existing properly understood. And this is the most important point: whatever our belief system, we know that existence is, at the very least, unlikely and is certainly unnecessary. The fact that we exist is simply a miracle—whether that is a miracle of God, or physics, or both. This is what Wendell Berry meant when he said:

“The miraculous is not the extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine—which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

This recognition—that there is nothing necessary about our own existence or about the existence of anything else in the universe—is the foundation of true gratitude, because existence itself is the miracle. No matter how difficult life gets, the mere fact of existence is the result of the overabundant generosity of reality. It is not just that gratitude is not in the service of the self but the self is itself a miraculous gift for which only gratitude is an adequate response. To understand this in the most radical sense is the essence of true happiness. For gratitude, a French lady with small and watery blue eyes once told me, is the seed of love and without it we have nothing.

Nature is constantly shaking us from our daily stupor into the awe of encountering reality. As winemakers, witnessing water, soil, and sunlight turn into grapes, and grapes (with a universe of microbiological constellations) turn into wine keeps us grounded in the miraculous mode of existence. Indeed, I would venture to say that the contentiousness and anxiety of the modern world is, in great part, due to a lack of this fundamental gratitude: we see the battle for power on all sides among those who are in a fundamental sense, ungrateful – people who, unimpressed with reality, seek to re-make the world, each in their own image.

So, I would like to toast to those who are grateful, even amid great suffering, to those who can walk by river bed, mountain, forest, seashore, and field, and be speechless in awe, to those who have the openness to be captivated by the human face, to those willing to belong to an overabundant and mysterious world instead of working to make it bend to their will, to those who are willing to recognize that gratitude is the only proper response to existence, the only point of departure and the only horizon.



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