I glance at my silenced cell phone and my heart stops. In the space of thirty minutes, I have nine missed calls from my wife. My wife is allergic to her cell phone—nine calls can only mean something bad has happened.
The “something bad” was an intersection with four stop signs and only three motorists who obeyed. My wife and two of my kids side-swiped by a car that never even slowed down. Our car spun in a circle.
Our lives get spun around and sometimes we don’t find out until thirty minutes later.
She says the word “accident,” and I say the word “safe?” and she says the word “yes” and I’m awash in gratitude as I head in the direction of the accident.
I arrive to find our car in the middle of the road—it will never be driven again—and the wave of gratitude for my family’s safety swells. Yet, as the minutes pass, the wave of gratitude passes with them, replaced by angst about a messed up car and anger about the whole messy situation.
My moment of gratitude was just that—a moment. And this week, our day of gratitude will be just that—a day. Why is gratitude so often fleeting?
Holding on to Gratitude
Because a lot of what we call gratitude is really just a disguised attachment to things—houses, cars, toys, gadgets, food, people, moments, even feelings.
Because as soon as we’ve become too attached to something, we squeeze the possibility for enduring gratitude right out of it. We start to believe we need the thing in order to be happy. Or worse, we come to believe we need more of the thing in order to be happy. Or even worse, we become fearful of losing the thing we treasure and our gratitude turns into anxiety.
Thankfully (pun intended), there is another way.
Instead of cherishing some-thing and attaching ourselves to it, we can cherish this messy-beautiful world and this one-chance life and we can enter wholeheartedly into it.
Thomas Merton writes, “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
The Cosmic Dance
I stare forlornly as my shattered car is hoisted onto a flatbed trailer. I gaze at the car I’ve driven since we had only one kid, and my attachment to the thing sends my gratitude packing. I stand and I stew in my loss. I marinate in my awful solemnity.
Meanwhile, there is a dance going on.
Meanwhile, the paramedic is treating my wife like she’s a queen. This stranger is grace in a uniform, ministering to us. It’s like we’re the only people in her world. Her kindness cannot be measured.
Meanwhile, car after car is stopping. Friends who happened to be driving by. They’re getting out of cars, faces stricken. They’re coming to us, surrounding us in a collective embrace. They offer help, but mostly they offer something even better—their presence.
Meanwhile, my children race in circles around us. They’re reveling in the excitement that has intruded upon our suburban routine. They are chasing, smiling, laughing. They are dancing. They are holding on to nothing and entering into the general dance that is happening in, through, and around everything I’m attached to in the moment.
My gratitude is flimsy, but their gratitude is whimsy, as they participate in the unstained joy of the cosmic dance.
When Gratitude Endures
There’s simply no way to talk about real, tough, strong, resilient, sustainable, enduring gratitude without throwing around metaphors like a cosmic dance or sinking into Love’s embrace or breathing in delight and breathing out gladness. There’s no enduring gratitude without words like awe and wonder and mystery.
Because enduring gratitude is what happens when we become aware life is like a dance. We don’t own or consume or attach ourselves to a dance. We join in with it, enter into the rhythm of it, fall into step with it, and we dance like no one is watching.
Forgetting ourselves on purpose.
Enduring gratitude is what happens when we realize life isn’t about the stuff we’re holding onto, it’s about the love that is holding onto us. Enduring gratitude is what happens when we discover there is a band playing and the music of this world and of this life is the sound of a deeper magic.
Casting our awful solemnity to the wind.
Enduring gratitude isn’t an experience that happens to us—it’s a state of being, a condition of existence we give ourselves over to.
Joy without stains.
Enduring gratitude. Even when our lives get spun around. The band is always playing. Our name is always on the dance card.
And it’s up to us to kick off our shoes and join the dance.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.