The transition between youthful cynicism and the attitude "What's to be grateful for?" was characterized by "Things could be worse" in my late 30s, when I couldn't avoid flat-out gratitude for surviving lymph cancer. Actually, it wasn't that simple, having prepared for death at age 36 (I thought). When I heard the word "remission," and it sank in that I would now live, my reaction was "What now? I've got to live? Oh, great! Thanks a heap." This seemed diabolically torturous. Perversely, what catalyzed something like real gratitude (and I believe it was) involved the first time I was able to drink whiskey after a year of chemotherapy, during which even the idea of it only guaranteed a new intensity of nausea. I remember drinking Bushmill's, holding it down -- this was within a week after radiation treatment was concluded -- and feeling grateful that my old friends Jameson, Johnny Walker, etc. had been restored to me, and verily it was good. Within ten years, those friends had been jacked from me (or possibly they mutinied), and I was confronted with the kind of irony only the man upstairs can provide, and that is the idea that I actually had cause for gratitude regarding alcoholism. Why? I could see, after a time, that it provided a spiritual advantage over nonalcoholics in the forced march of enlightenment: that is, the starting point is the Abyss from which the view of anything you care to point at is clear as the azure skies of summer.
At age 55, after surviving much (including a quadruple bypass and the dual implants of a defibrillator and pacemaker), one would think it is a natural to thank heaven I'm alive; but as my father never tired of pointing out, "Nothing's ever simple." I am hardly leaping for joy, as possibly I should, that I am alive (for one thing, it might kill me), nor am I keen on croaking right this minute or today, for that matter.
The reminders that I need for the onset of gratitude are things that I assiduously avoid these days: certain neighborhoods of homeless, county jail, detox, etc. Even though I once experienced these environments, I am no more immune than the hopelessly detached to the idea that sheer proximity to these places involves a risk of contagion. As irrational as that is, I am more convinced than ever that it is so.
I've heard it said, usually among the elderly, that it is the small things one eventually settles on for gratitude. As I am now owner of a senior/disabled bus pass (for which I am grateful when I think about it, but I almost never do), I find that rather than life itself or the roof over my head, which was not provided by a contractor for county jails, I am grateful for -- and this is precious -- the hours during the day when my roommate is gone and I can light my pipe full of Burley Virginia and Latakia tobacco. I can get away with this quaint yet disgusting pleasure almost nowhere, at least in this state. While I find it odd that my chain-smoking Marlboro man of a roommate finds this objectionable, it is a small price to pay for half the rent. Gratitude for trade-offs with a sense of bargain attached qualifies for gratitude.
Just as at some point in the not-too-distant future I will be grateful I do not need a roommate any longer (possibly by that time it will be a nurse I need), and need no longer suffer bluegrass music, politics on television, and football, I am grateful my rent is now under five bills and Zeke (the roommate) says nothing about my occupying the bathroom for inordinate periods of time.
The Oxford American Dictionary shows grateful to mean: "Feeling or showing that one values a kindness or benefit received." Unlike the larger Oxford English Dictionary, it does not give a clue as to the origin of the word, specifically the root, "grate." The only thing coming to mind is the Latin gratis, meaning free. The only association I have offhand is that one is full of what has been given freely. Close enough. But just as no good deed goes unpunished, one can usually look a gift horse in the mouth and find a price tag somewhere. Part of the cost for my rent luxuriating in the under-half-a-yard range is smoking my one pipe before 3 p.m., when my roomie might arrive home at any moment and make me feel like a juvenile delinquent smoking corn silk behind the barn. My gift of alcoholism has been far from free (nearly needless to say); the gift of life itself, defying hefty odds, comes with the knowledge that the whole deal will be yanked from me decades earlier than I might have expected 20 years ago, etcetera, etcetera.
Other "gifts" ostensibly free, like the "God given" musical ability I enjoy or "knack" for words, seem, on little reflection, to have cost the metaphorical arm and a leg.
And, so, the utility of gratitude (God, the universe, some spiritual economic principle does indeed respond to the stuff, the thing) is surpassed only by its necessity. Like patience, once a virtue, now an imperative in 2006, gratitude is indispensable, a survival tool; whatever wealth (and define that how you like, from grandchildren to bearer bonds) clings to, a self, the atman, our core being, quickly turns to Teflon without it. We become bankrupt in any way that matters. So if you have to scrounge for whatever it is that might distinguish you from, say, the ingrate, scrounge away. It is certainly worth it, I've found, and goes as well if not better with turkey as cranberry sauce.