“Familiarity need not breed contempt, but it can breed a complacency that encourages us to take things for granted. Too often, we fail to appreciate the people and experiences that enrich our daily lives. Their proximity to us dulls our sensitivity to their beauty and uniqueness, and they start to come across as unremarkable landmarks in our everyday geography. Perhaps, too, the busyness of modern life keeps us too distracted to take notice of just how special they really are. At any rate, it’s typically when our lives are turned upside down by their loss that we consciously sense their importance, and even then our response is more often one of petulance for what’s no longer ours, than gratitude for what once was.”
The quote beginning this reflection is taken from the book The Art of Dying and Living. It appears in a chapter based on the life of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who, like Anne Frank, kept a diary chronicling her experience of the Nazi occupation of her country and the death of her family, friends, and eventually herself. The remarkable thing about Etty is that she continued to be grateful for life even amidst the horrors of the Holocaust. There was no complacency in her, no taking anyone or anything for granted. She did not limit the extent of her gratitude for she valued the full, unfiltered reality of life.
As Thanksgiving approaches it’s good to reflect on those aspects of life for which we are grateful – people and plenty, health and security, etc. Of course we are grateful for what pleases us, but when we are thankful only for what makes us happy we limit the full meaning and scope of gratitude.
True gratitude opens its arms wide to the world, embracing everything and everyone without exception. Like a bride or groom, gratitude says “yes” in good times and bad, for richer and poorer, in sickness and health. Of course we prefer the better, the good times, the health and wealth – Etty did – but when we cross our arms instead of opening them, when we resist and resent what we don’t like, we become the opposite of grateful, a word whose Latin root gratus means free.
Etty was imprisoned, but her soul was free. We may be free, but we’re often confined by our refusal to be open to all of life.