“God and a Grateful Old Man,” from My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir
Smedes, Lewis B.
Eerdmans, 2003 in The Banner, vol. 138 (2003)
I learned long ago that if anything can be better than getting a gift, it is the gratitude we feel for getting it. There is no other pleasure to compare with it–not sex, not winning a lottery, not hearing lovely music, not seeing stunning mountain peaks, nothing. Gratitude beats them all. I have never met a grateful person who was an unhappy person. And, for that matter, I have never met a grateful person who was a bad person (possible exception, Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” who is grateful for her superiority to “niggers and white trash”). I know that, in one sense, there is a kind of duty to be grateful, but gratitude feels to me more like a reflex reaction to gifts that I am given than a virtue that I have labored to achieve. All we need to be grateful is the insight to recognize a real gift when we get one. A gift is not just something we get for nothing. Things we get for nothing can have a hook inside them–ask a bass who just bit into a free worm. I heard once of a wife who said that every time her husband gave her something unusually nice, she knew that he was bribing her to forgive him for something not so nice. Yes, things we get for nothing can have a hook in them, but a real gift is given only to give pleasure and comfort to the one who receives it.
I have learned about real gifts is that they always come with a person attached. My gift to someone always comes with an unwritten message: I want to be part of your life; take my gift, take me. And I know that when someone gives me a gift, she too is saying: I want to be in your life. And knowing that she is attached to it makes her gift doubly precious. I do not understand how people can be thankful for a gift if they have no person to thank for giving it to them. We teach our children to say thank-you to their grandmother for her birthday gift; why should we not teach them to say thank you to God for the gift of their birth? (This thought is a gift from G. K. Chesterton.) Why should we not teach them that every new dawn of every morning, every drop of rain, every budding tulip, every blade of grass, every lovely thought we think, every wonderful feeling we feel, every memory of pleasure past, every tingle of pleasure present, every touch of a loved one’s finger, every hug from a laughing child, every note of a Mozart concerto, every coming home to our own place and people, every new hope that sees beyond a hard present—all of them are gifts with a Person attached. When it comes to gratitude, we who are old have an advantage. We have more good gifts to remember and therefore more opportunities to be grateful for them. And we have stopped striving for things we do not have, which makes it easier for us to be grateful for the things we do have.
I remember how Doris and I, on three different trips to an adoption agency, came home with three very different children who now, after “many a conflict and many a doubt,” nurture a warm affection for the aging parents who made so many mistakes in bringing them up. With memories like these, gratitude comes as easily as my next breath. I remember magnificent things and I remember little things, and I feel grateful for them both. I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I also remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals. I remember my mother’s weary weeping after a long week’s labor, and I remember the pleasure Doris and I had with our first garage-door opener. Big things, little things, it matters little as long as they were gifts with a person attached. But, then, when I thank God for being so very generous to me, I seem to imply that he must be a stingy crank to many others. When I remember that a thousand times ten thousand are living out a thousand varieties of hell on earth, my joy feels self-centered and obscene to me. This is why, on my little island of blessing in this vast ocean of pain, my “thank you” always has the blues.
When I, an octogenarian with a weight problem, remember the scrawny kid that I once was, I feel grateful. When I remember my adolescent haplessness and then remind myself of how God nudged me into a creative life spent at the happiest work ever invented, I feel grateful. When I remember the times my spirit groveled under the belief that there were no redeeming features in me at all, no beauty, no virtue, no power, no loveliness in my soul that God could admire and find lovable, and then I recall how, gradually and in fits and starts, it was revealed to me that, along with my failures, my spirit was a treasury of lovable and admirable qualities, I feel grateful. When I remember my boyhood sense that God had reprobated me to damnation and compare it with my old man’s certainty that he has elected me to share his grace, I feel very grateful. I remember how as a boy I dared not hope that any pretty girl would ever notice me, and the memory makes me grateful to be an old man with a wife so lovely I often stand and stare. I remember how superior men and women whom anyone would pray to be like crossed my path and then stayed as dear friends. I remember how I, not yet 50, could not persuade myself that I could write a book worth anyone’s reading and how, after 50, I have written a shelf full of them. I remember how on two occasions I was given at best a long-shot chance at survival after a raft of blood clots attached themselves to my lungs, and here I am still lifting weights at a gym.