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Gratitude, Just For Existing
The power of transpersonal gratitude.
Being grateful for existing
When you think about the fact that the world exists, how do you feel?
Overwhelmed, perhaps? Perplexed? Or even grateful?
Many people have a feeling of deep gratitude for the existence of the world and our being part of it. This feeling might be hard to articulate, and it might come and go like the British summer sun, but it can nevertheless be a powerful, even overwhelming emotion.
If you ever feel this way, then very probably it occurs in moments of peaceful joy. For me, at least, it comes about when sitting back and observing a moment of fragile, ephemeral beauty: seeing my children at play, for example, or sitting and watching the sun set. Perhaps, like me, you find that at times like these, you’re thankful simply for the fact that we are, and the world is.
For plenty of people, the feeling itself is enough; no reflection on it is needed. This is, of course, a perfectly good way of appreciating our being here. Other people, however, are prone to reflecting on such feelings without, hopefully, stripping those feelings of what makes them precious in the first place. I’m in the latter camp, and I’m tempted to reflect on my gratitude that the world exists because there’s something I find puzzling about it: namely, when we feel this way, to whom are we grateful?
Being grateful to others
The reason for my perplexity is this. Normally if we feel grateful for something, then there’s someone, or something, to whom our gratitude is directed. If you give me a bottle of scotch for my birthday, then I’ll feel grateful to you. When my dog manages to go for a walk in the countryside and not roll in fox excrement, I feel (very) grateful toward her.
In short, there is usually some kind of causal agent responsible for the things that we feel gratitude for and to whom we extend said gratitude. This kind of gratitude can be called interpersonal gratitude.
Is gratitude that the world exists also a kind of inter-personal gratitude, then? That depends.
On the one hand, you might believe in a creator-deity. In that case, gratitude for the world existing is of the same kind (though drastically different in scale) to the gratitude we extend to other people for various things. The theist or deist can, in other words, think of God as the gift-giver of life and extend their gratitude accordingly.
By contrast, if you don’t believe in a creator-deity, then things quickly become more complex. Perhaps you’re an atheist, an agnostic, a pantheist, or even a worshipper of gods who aren’t deemed responsible for the world’s existence (the Monad of Gnosticism fits this latter category, as did the main ancient Greek gods). If you belong to any one of these groups, and you still feel gratitude for existence, how can this be explained? Or is it just logically contradictory?
Being grateful to no one
In fact, it’s not logically contradictory at all: it simply involves looking at another dimension of gratitude, one that is less obvious, perhaps, but just as real.
As we’ve seen, the gratitude we feel most regularly toward gift-givers or creator-deities can be labeled interpersonal gratitude. There’s another common kind of gratitude, however, which is directed toward no one in particular: transpersonal gratitude.
An example that might make intuitive sense is your health. Say you’re into middle or old age and still fit, thankfully not suffering any serious illnesses. If so, you might have yourself to thank, in part, by leading a healthy lifestyle.
We all know, however, that there’s no perfect causal relationship between leading a healthy lifestyle and experiencing good health. It’s perfectly possible to exercise regularly, eat well, not indulge in alcohol or smoking and yet still fall foul of a serious disease. Equally, we all know people who don’t do a great deal of exercise and perhaps drink or smoke too much, and yet still live long and happy lives. In other words, there’s a good degree of luck involved as well.
So if we happen to be someone who’s relatively advanced in years and still healthy, we don’t only have ourselves to thank. We should also be grateful to – well, who, exactly? This is the crux of the matter.
Only if you believe in a creator-deity that governs every action and event in the universe can you extend your gratitude for your health interpersonally to them. But if not – if you’re an atheist, an agnostic, or even if you believe in a creator-deity who lets Creation run its own course – then there’s no one to whom you can extend your gratitude.
Instead, gratitude for our good health is directed to a mixture of amorphous, abstract entities: nature, fortune, even the cosmos as such. Our gratitude is, in other words, transpersonal.
The power of transpersonal gratitude
We all likely feel transpersonal gratitude at some points in our lives: whether this is for good health, having happy children, or even simply for being part of the miracle that is the world. For those people who don’t believe in a creator-deity, their gratitude for all those things, existence included, will take this form: a transpersonal gratitude directed at nature, fate, and perhaps – for the pantheistically inclined – a god that is identical to both.
Despite its inherent vagueness, there’s a clarity that comes from being aware of any transpersonal gratitude. We can, in the first instance, give a name to this hard-to-articulate feeling and so better understand what it is we’re feeling.
More than this, though, we can practice gratitude, training ourselves to notice when we have it and even perhaps to bring it about when we’re struggling with something. Whenever life’s trials and tribulations threaten to overwhelm us, we could bring our thoughts back to those things that we’re transpersonally grateful for—our children’s well-being, perhaps, or the natural beauty around us.
The result might be a profoundly positive one: that whenever we think about the fact that the world exists, we no longer feel overwhelmed or even primarily perplexed but grateful instead. That surely is a gratitude worth cultivating.