Monday, September 01, 2008

Feeling Thankful?

Rosh Chodesh Elul not only ushers in a period of intense introspection, but also offers two chances to say Hallel, a tefillah of thanksgiving and praise. In conjunction with these themes I’ve been thinking about the emotion of thankfulness.

I know that I am as blessed as any human being could hope to be. I have a wonderful family and amazing friends. All of my material needs are consistently met and exceeded. I am in good health. I have been given gifts and talents to utilize in this world, as well as the opportunity to foster them. Very few people can count themselves more fortunate than I.

Yet, as I think about these blessings, I became conscious of how rarely I actually feel the emotion of thankfulness. Intellectually, I am constantly reminded of the fact that I should be thankful. I know that God has given me far more than I deserve, and I make sure to tell myself so at regular intervals. However, this is not the same as feeling thankful to God.

I realized that the only times that I am able to feel an overwhelming thankfulness to God are when I either acquire a new gift or nearly lose one that I have.

In the past, when I have been blessed with something that I had heretofore lacked, I have felt—combined with the happiness of the new blessing—a consuming thankfulness. It is hard to describe what it feels like; the emotion is euphoric and transcendent, and humbling to an extreme. Yet, almost inevitably, over time the emotion dulls and fades, as the new gift is assimilated into my frame of being.

Confronting the possibility of losing something also engenders in me an emotion of thankfulness. When a gift teeters in the balance, or seems to for a time, fear and prayer are my immediate reactions. If the gift is spared, my relief mingles with thankfulness to God, creating an emotional state that is generally even more intense than my thankfulness for a new blessing.

However, I have been unable to manufacture any passable facsimile of this emotion in my day-to-day life. I can remind myself that I should, and must, be thankful, but this is an intellectual knowledge, not an emotional one.

When a person does something for me it is easier to feel thankful. I am able to relate to a fellow human being, to visualize myself as the other and recognize the effort that the person has put in, with the knowledge that what the person has done for me was not required. I can imagine what it would be like to be the giver; I know that the gift I was given was inconvenient, or time-consuming, or difficult to give.

With God, it is not so. I cannot put myself in His position. I cannot imagine any “effort” on His part. There is a total disconnect between the state of the giver and the state of the receiver, making it far more difficult to create an emotion of thankfulness.

It is also easier to express gratitude to human beings. When a person goes out of his/her way to do something for you, even just a verbal expression of thanks can have a profound effect on both the giver and the receiver. Often, some sort of reciprocal act also communicates one’s appreciation. The very process of acting allows the receiver to internalize his gratitude.

With God, however, it is different. Yes, in the time of the BHMK there were (and will be, according to many opinions) korbanot, particularly the korban Todah, an active manifestation of thanks. And nowadays there are the hoda’ah sections of tefillah, verbal declarations of thanks for our blessings and the miracles that God performs for us daily. But although saying these prayers can sometimes have a minimal positive effect on my emotional state, it rarely creates the powerful emotion that I seek.

When dealing with God, my thanks can receive no tangible reception; I can see no effect of my words, and I know that my expression of gratitude cannot benefit the subject of it. In this case, the only entity who truly benefits is myself. This makes the thanks I utter echo endlessly in my own ears, yet still it rings hollow.

I do not know the solution to my problem. I do not know how to inspire or create an emotion of thankfulness to permeate my everyday life. I know only that I should feel thankful, that I want to feel thankful, and that, in the core of my being, I am thankful. I only hope that I can find a way to tap into some hidden reserve of emotion that will allow me to experience thankfulness in a way that is conscious and true.


Ezzie said...

Try davening.*

* (Most people will misread that, I think, but hopefully you know what I'm saying.)

Good post.

Freeda said...

SJ, no comment on this post but just found your blog and have been reading and reading and reading- it's great and so thought provoking- love it!

G said...

I know only that I should feel thankful, that I want to feel thankful, and that, in the core of my being, I am thankful.


I only hope that I can find a way to tap into some hidden reserve of emotion that will allow me to experience thankfulness in a way that is conscious and true.

How will that be so different than what you have already done above?

Erachet said...

In some ways, I think that if we constantly feel intense emotion about everything we do, we would slowly go insane. It's definitely a good thing to feel thankful, or sad, or happy, or sorry when appropriate, but at the same time, you're not always going to feel the same intensity of emotion on any given day.

I think the fact that you recognize the gifts God has given you is already in the realm of not taking them for granted.

Northern Light said...

Oh my, no one is adequately thankful, but I've found a help to feeling grateful is to spend a second longer than usual to contemplate what I'm viewing around me. Amazement often helps me feel grateful--and there is so much amazing everywhere. Even saying "mode ani" or the brucha "asher yatzar" with just a little pause can, I've found, increase my gratitude, at least a tad.
Also, I do think as one ages one becomes more grateful, and takes less for granted. And things that were hard-won inspire more gratitude than those handed on a platter.

SJ said...

G - Lately I've been grappling with many issues relating to the dichotomy between intellect and emotion in my religious experience. I know that there exists an emotion of thankfulness, because I have experienced it (on the occasions I described). However, generally my gratitude is merely intellectual, which, in a way, limits its scope and its reality. I want to change that.

G said...

Fair enough.

Are we so sure that one must be seperate of the other? Perhaps it is sort of a 'mitoch lo leshma, ba leshma' thing?

--just thinking out loud