Life and death has been a recurring theme on my blog. Confronted with our mortality, a common stance we assume is one of anger. Hearing of such a stance recently, I thought I would expand on my notion of gratitude in this writeup, liberally paraphrased from Shelly Kagan’s lectures on this subject.
Gratitude is best described in mystical terms, where we have a generous, benevolent giver (namely God) and a receiver (such as ourselves). A mystic poem that Kagan quoted goes like this (paraphrasing again, of course): God was a bit bored, so he created the universe and all the beauty in it, like the sun and the stars, beaches and mountains, forests and lakes, snow and waterfalls, and so on. At the end of this creation, God wanted an audience. So he looked at some mud on the ground and said, “Sit up and see all this beauty that I have created.” And I sat up and looked. Then I saw. I saw the beauty, not only in love and life and pleasure and happiness and everything nice and great, but also in loss and grief and misery and struggles, in all things bad and mean as well.
I cannot even begin to tell you how grateful I am that I got to be the mud that sat up and saw it all. All this beauty. So much of it that it hurts if we allow ourselves to see it. I got to experience the pleasures and the pride, and the pangs and the anguish. I got a glimpse of God’s own thoughts, written in these immense volumes of beauty. Imagine, if my parents had gotten amorous a minute earlier or later, I wouldn’t have been, and all this beauty would have been lost to me. How can I be anything but grateful for this singular fortune, this supreme gift?
What does it matter that my awareness of all this beauty will cease in 20 or so years? Or tomorrow? I see it now. My experience at this point in time is etched in eternity. It is mine. For now. And for ever.
This little bit about eternity is my dim understanding of an old song, but it is also an oblique commentary on the different outlooks of life. The western outlook is that life is a gift to be appreciated, a container to be filled with as many great things that we can muster in this short blink during which it lasts.
But we, of the East, beg to differ. We view life as a burden or suffering (as in Buddhism), or as a difficult patch in the cycle of life and death. We deal with it by not getting too attached to life and its pleasures.
When I say “we,” I am not sure I include myself in it. Well, may be I do. I see the beauty in detachment as well, in actions performed devoid of any attachment to their fruits or glory, in kindness for its own sake, in a life lived to its fullest, but oriented toward a salvation that is the very antithesis of life. I see beauty in our petty fights and our noble gestures, in our worldly worries and our heavenly pursuits. In everything that adds a little piece to this grand collage, a little square to this magnificent Persian rug, a little shade to this dome of many-colored glass, staining the white radiance of eternity. And I am grateful that I get to see it all.