Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gratitude and Thanksgiving

It's Thanksgiving in the U.S. tomorrow, a day of eating, connecting with family and friends, and, presumably, being grateful. I suspect that, at least among the people I know, gratitude is mostly a vague, generalized awareness, mainly that the busy holiday season is upon us.  This holiday for many people means an annual ritual of travel, cooking, watching football, overeating and shopping--and nothing more. 

I wish everyone could be silent for a while on this day, savor the moment, and truly feel thankful, especially for the things we take for granted.  Isn't happiness found in being mindful of the present?

Being grateful is essential to my life because, amid personal struggles, political turmoil, and world-wide violence and corruption, I need to stop and think positive thoughts.  I need to remind myself of simple things--the intense blue of the sky between two pine trees as I look out my window, or the light as it comes into the house in the afternoon...I am grateful for the beautiful lakes that dot my area of Florida and the touches of autumn in colored leaves on cool days.

I am grateful for the friends and family who write or call us at this time of year.  I am grateful for those times in the day when I don't feel the pain of arthritis and become irritable or sad about my health.  Of course, I am grateful for a rich store of memories--of students going back 50-plus years, of trips, of family gatherings by many who are no longer around.  Above all, I am grateful for my wife, Lynn, and her brilliance, her hard work, her constant support and boundless love.

I am grateful to have had a retirement from university teaching that has allowed me to write and speak and keep learning new things, thanks to the internet and related technology.  And I am grateful for so much more....

Gratitude is for me the essence of prayer, and I like to think that in each moment when I recollect something to be thankful for, at any time of the year, I am talking to God, connecting myself to my inner life as well as to the community of people I know and remember. It's hard to imagine real gratitude without a belief in God.

And it's hard to imagine happiness without gratitude.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Solitude vs. Loneliness

Social commentators are right to be concerned about people sitting in isolation in front of computers, a prey to nasty stuff. Such isolation can lead some young people to encounter extremist views and conspiracy theories and other right-wing propaganda.

But being alone is not necessarily a source of loneliness.  "A man alone is always in bad company," Paul Valery is quoted as saying, but I disagree with this as an absolute principle.  A person left alone, adrift with ties to family or faith or any other community, can be in bad company--unless he or she seeks the kind of solitude that nourishes the spirit.

Creative people need solitude, which is not at all akin to loneliness.  Most of us need a few hours alone, especially in this noisy, busy culture; we need to be alone with ourselves.  Solitude implies a time apart that is enjoyable.  My time writing requires solitude; my wife, a poet and fiction writer, goes so far as to disconnect the telephone for what she calls "cloistered time."  Both of us are happy being on our own for a few hours reading, writing, or just thinking.
Anyone who has read Thomas Merton (Thoughts in Solitude, e.g.) or May Sarton or many other more recent writers knows that one can be happy, or at least contented, with a good bit of solitude.  I thought of this in my research into feline behavior. Cats are solitary creatures, but they also crave company and seek our attention. So it is with people, especially creative ones.  We need to interact with another living being, yet we also need time apart for ourselves.

Solitude is a precious commodity of the self, something the poet Rilke has in mind when he wrote, "I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other."  So the kind of love he envisions, as a poet, requires respecting the other's private domain, allowing the partner the creative freedom to be alone.

And yet being alone in contemplative prayer or meditation, as Merton and other can attest, is also to be connected to the vast web of others who are praying or meditating.  In being part of a community of silence, we are never really alone even while being on our own.  And we are certainly not lonely or in bad company.