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How to Be Thankful Every Day

by RABBI STEVE LEDER

Legend has it that in the time of Kind David, 100 people died every day due to a terrible plague. Believing the plague had a spiritual cause, the Sages instituted a “measure for measure” response: the saying of 100 blessings each day. According to the legend, counting their blessings 100 times a day stopped the plague.

Modernity is its own sort of plague; so much stress, anxiety, and uncertainty each day while bombarded by images of people who seem to have and to be so much more than we. In the midst of all that worry, phoniness and materialism, our 100 blessings a day are easy to miss. A friend of mine calls this “Standing knee-deep in the river and drowning of thirst.”

Thanks in part to that King David legend, many religious people actually strive to say no fewer than 100 blessings a day. You’re about to eat a strawberry? There’s a blessing for it. What about a handful of raisins? There’s a blessing for that, too. There is even a Hebrew blessing for after you go the bathroom expressing gratitude that your openings open and your closings close. That might sound funny until you actually have an opening that doesn’t open or a closing that doesn’t close—that’s a stroke, heart attack, obstruction, or hemorrhage and you may well die. So a blessing for each day our bodies work? Yes.

Almost all cultures have some sort of blessing over bread. Why? Why a blessing over something as ordinary as bread? It’s simple of course…if we can be grateful for bread, then we can be grateful for the other, greater blessings of life, too. It is a wise person, a happier person, a more successful person, a better person, who affirms the enoughness, the beauty, the miracle of bread.

The ancients considered sleep a sort of miniature death. They were amazed each time they awoke to a new day. But for most of us, it’s easy to take waking up for granted. So I keep a small, laminated prayer of gratitude in my closet. I say it quietly each morning before I dress, kiss my sleeping wife, whisper, “I love you,” and head out the door. That blessing reminds me that someday something will happen to me and I will be gone, so now, right now, is the moment to cherish life and love. That prayer is a reminder, as a forty-year-old man with three children who suffered a heart attack once said to me, “Even a bad day is a gift.”

You don’t have to be religious to be grateful. Say thank you to whatever noun you can embrace; the Power behind all powers, the Power of the mountain and the sea, your children’s laughter, your lover’s shy smile, ripening fruit and flowers opening petals to the sun, the Power of the cosmos and the quark, the Power of breath in your body. We can all pause to be aware and amazed by life, nature, and love. We can all become more grateful and humane human beings.

Of course, gratitude is about so much more than what sustains our bodies. Life is ultimately about who we have, not what we have. Two thousand years ago the Talmud reminded us that to be rich is to be satisfied with what we already have. More than half a century ago Robert Kennedy said GDP “measures everything, except that which makes life worthwhile.” My Yiddish speaking grandmother put it another way, “A burial shroud,” she quipped, “has no pockets.”

Consider this experiment recommended for depression by psychologist Martin Seligman. He calls it a “Gratitude Visit.” Close your eyes and remember someone who did something enormously important that changed your life in a good way and who you never properly thanked. The person has to be alive. Write a 300-word testimonial to that person, call him or her on the phone and ask if you can visit, don’t say why. Show up at the door, then read your testimonial. Everyone weeps when this happens. When Seligman tests both the visitor and the person visited one week later, a month later, three months later, they are both happier and less depressed. To whom are you grateful? Have you told him? Have you told her?

The Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeirgarnik proved that when you show people a picture of a circle with a small wedge cut out of it, their eyes first go to the missing piece every time. Despite our pain and very real loses, when we look around the table this Thanksgiving, may we see 100 blessings, not the missing piece.

We here on the SP team will be taking the “Gratitude Challenge.” Will you? If so, let us know!

This essay was featured in the November 24th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.

RABBI STEVE LEDER

Steve Leder is the author of More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us and the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

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