Sunday Assembly XIX: Gratitude – a review

Posted on Nov 2, 2015 in Uncategorized | No Comments

Sunday Assembly Boston hosted a fantastic speaker in October, Nathan Matias — a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, and a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media. His research into online community building focuses upon factors that contribute to flourishing and fair participation, and on the creation and evaluation of technologies that enable creative, effective, safe, and sustainable societies. Unsurprisingly, the theme of his talk, and of our Assembly this month, was Gratitude.

For our readings, Nathan selected two texts on this theme, and they are well worth reading if you have a moment. The first is a poem by Robert Hayden, titled “Those Winter Sundays”; find it online at the website of the Poetry Foundation.

Nathan’s second reading selection was an excerpt from the writings of Roman author Seneca, as translated by John Basore:

When we have decided that we ought to accept, let us accept cheerfully, professing our pleasure and letting the giver have proof of it in order that he may reap instant reward; for, as it is a legitimate source of happiness to see a friend happy, it is a more legitimate one to have made him so. Let us show how grateful we are for the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings, and let us bear witness to them, not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere. He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.

(Emphasis mine.)

In the course of considering our reading options, we dug up a number of other prose and poem explorations of the theme of gratitude. Two in particular I wanted to share, since they come at the theme from such very different directions. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about our growing Better/Often/More “liturgy” comprising all those readings being read aloud each month at Assemblies around the world, it’s the great variety of tones and genres on display: rap lyrics, epic poetry, sections of novels, dirty limericks.

Here’s the first of the two bonus readings, taken from the nonfiction book Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert Emmons, published in 2008. It summarizes some of the scientific research that speaks to the value of active gratitude:

A grateful outlook on life appears to offer protection in times of crisis. But gratitude may also confer a more widespread and pervasive resiliency across the life span. Resiliency is an enormously popular topic in psychology today. It refers to the ability to spring back from and successfully adapt to adversity. A vast research literature has shown, for example, that optimism, hardiness, a sense of humor, social support, a sense of purpose and meaning, and spirituality are potent resiliency factors. Recent research suggests that gratitude should be added to this list.

Kenneth Kendler and his colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine have been studying genetic risk factors for depression and other psychiatric illnesses for the last twenty years. Twin registries are compiled with the goal of understanding environmental and family-genetic traits (the strategy of examining pairs of twins allows researchers to detect unique risk factors because both twins are matched both for their genetic and their familial-environmental background). In one study, published in 2003, they looked at lifetime risk for psychiatric disorders in nearly three thousand twin pairs. High levels of thankfulness were associated with reduced risk for what researchers referred to as internalizing disorders (depression, phobias, bulimia) and externalizing disorders (antisocial personality, alcohol and drug dependence). As an epidemiological study, it does not shed light on WHY thankfulness might confer a protective effect; nevertheless this was a significant study in that most resiliency factors tend to be environmental (stress, family history, personal loss) or biological (diet, exercise) in nature, and not something as seemingly inconspicuous and unassuming as gratitude. [pp. 173-4]

The second bonus reading carries a note of sadness, for its author, the poet Franz Wright, passed away earlier this year. He was known to many of us in the Boston area. The poem comes from his collection Ill Lit, and is titled “The Face”:

Is there a single thing in nature
that can approach in mystery
the absolute uniqueness of any human face, first, then
its transformation from childhood to old age—

We are surrounded at every instant
by sights that ought to strike the sane
unbenumbed person tongue-tied, mute
with gratitude and terror. However,

there may be three sane people on earth
at any given time: and if
you got the chance to ask them how they do it,
they would not understand.

I think they might just stare at you
with the embarrassment of pity. Maybe smile
the way you do when children suddenly reveal a secret
preoccupation with their origins, careful not to cause them shame,

on the contrary, to evince the great congratulating pleasure
one feels in the presence of a superior talent and intelligence;
or simply as one smiles to greet a friend who’s waking up,
to prove no harm awaits him, you’ve dealt with and banished all harm.

“Unbenumbed…” lovely, no? And bittersweet, and as genuine an expression of the complexity of gratitude as I’ve encountered.

___

This post was written by Zachary Bos, a regular attendee and Trustee of Sunday Assembly Boston. Please comment below, or send an email to boston@sundayassembly.com with your thoughts.

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