Week 4

It Might Have Been Otherwise: Spiritual Gratitude

The tree fell on the back seat of my moving car with such force that it broke the rear axle and shattered every window. The crack as it snapped was so loud that even families warm inside their homes heard it and came running out into the cold. The car skidded to a halt, and very quickly people were yelling at me, “Are you all right? Can you get out?”

Within five minutes, two police cruisers and a fire truck arrived. No ambulance came because the December storm had created such dangerous driving conditions that they had been called to other accidents. One of the firemen took my blood pressure, which was high and irregular; he asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. Despite my heart’s pounding with the excitement of flashing lights and cars in every direction stopped by the tree across both lanes of the road, I declined. I didn’t feel I needed a doctor; I had only a few cuts on the top of my head from the collapse of the car roof. That was all.

How delicate our human bodies are in contrast to the strength of a large tree. Having carried large pieces of lumber, I know how dense and heavy wood really is. The tree that fell on my car could have hit the hood or the windshield. If it had fallen one second earlier, it would have landed directly on the front seat, and my head. Instead, I walked away unscathed. I am not dead, or permanently disabled.

I know it might have been otherwise, as Jane Kenyon articulates in her poem Otherwise, which she wrote after being diagnosed with terminal cancer:

I got out of bed/ on two strong legs./ It might have been/ otherwise. I ate/ cereal, sweet/ milk, ripe flawless/ peach. It might/ have been otherwise./ I took the dog uphill/ to the birch wood./ All morning I did/ the work I love…/ But one day, I know,/ it will be otherwise.

In my almost-otherwise encounter with that tree, I experienced something akin to the feelings reported by people who have a near-death experience—a changed understanding of what life is all about. I sustained what I call a near-life experience—a deeper understanding of how sacred life is. I came to fully appreciate how fragile we human beings are, and I felt a profound sense of gratitude.
My gratitude was more than an awareness of successes or bounty. It was a feeling that went to the core of my being. It was a sense of fundamental appreciation for my time here on earth and for the basic elements of my life—breath, health, love, joy, and inner peace. What I experienced was a deep sense of spiritual gratitude.

A few years ago, my friend Alan had a four-inch tumor removed from his spine. Before going into the hospital, he told me that he envisioned himself after the operation as totally paralyzed and in a wheelchair. In his worst moments, he thought he might never leave the hospital. When he did survive, he came to view the operation and his recovery as the greatest experience of his life. Upon seeing family and friends in his hospital room, he would burst into tears. After my own accident, I had the same ecstatic feeling. When I arrived home that evening, I walked in and hugged my wife again and again.

I recently asked Alan if he had experienced any diminishing of the vividness of his appreciation for life. He said that his exuberance had lasted for several months, but that eventually it had faded away. He can intellectually remember and glimpse those former feelings of thankfulness for life, but they are no longer at the edge of his emotions.

I find that when I wake up each morning, I no longer think, “Boy am I lucky to be here; I could have been killed by that falling tree.” My attitude increasingly, almost unconsciously, is to say to myself, “Of course I’m alive.” Trees fall and tumors grow, but in time we may distance ourselves from a close encounter with death and forget how fortunate we are just to be alive. If I were lying in a hospital bed, I know I’d give anything just to be able to get up on two strong legs, eat breakfast and perform everyday tasks.

We all need reminders of life’s mystery and preciousness. We don’t often enough take a few moments to reflect with gratitude on the blessings of the day. My liberal religious faith is embodied in the belief that every day is a gift of grace. Unitarian Universalism supports this affirming view of life on earth. We join in worship to create the community where the sacredness of our lives is experienced, acknowledged, and appreciated.

Our spiritual challenge is to keep this appreciation alive every day. I have looked for and found ways that help me remember and appreciate my life. I invite you to find your own way, your own spiritual practice.

Occasionally, to reflect on my being here, I stop at the spot where the tree fell. I also have kept, as a reminder, a General Motors advertisement that my wife cut out of a magazine—a picture of trees and the byline, “If a tree falls on your car in the forest, does anyone hear it?” Each day now, seeing the picture, I’m reminded of my good fortune in being alive. For each of us, visual reminders such as photographs of loved ones, a lit candle, a special object, or a fresh flower can be a daily source of beauty and thankfulness.

I have adopted the spiritual practice of saying, upon awakening each morning, a short prayer beginning with the words of Winslow Homer, “The sun will not rise or set without my notice or thanks.” And I add, “I’m blessed to be here. May I appreciate this day.” Morning prayer is an integral practice of all the world’s religions, from the active mosque to the quiet chapel. Earth-based religions have encouraged the practice of praying each morning a litany of appreciation for all the elements of life, including thankfulness for people, earth, water, animals, trees, winds, sun and moon. A simple prayer, affirmation or meditation can be an important beginning, setting the course of our day with a sense of appreciation.

Our expression of gratitude can be more public. A former member of my church, now deceased, served in the Army in World War II. Andrew was a short man with a trim moustache and the debonair appearance of a retired professional. He experienced horrifying battles while in combat and saw many of his comrades die around him. Andrew vowed that if he survived, he would wear a flower in his lapel every day in memory of his fallen comrades, to acknowledge the beauty of each day and his gratitude for being alive. His flower became a reminder not only for Andrew, but for all who knew him.

Some people keep a Gratitude Book, in which they write down the events of the day that have given them joy and for which they are grateful. Grace at meals provides a periodic time for thanksgiving, and nightly meditation, prayer or reflection brings restful closure to the day. As Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystic wrote, “The most important prayer in the world is just two words—thank you.”

Near the conclusion of Thornton Wilder’s drama Our Town, Simon Stimson, who is dead, speaks to young Emily, also dead, who wants to return to earth. He says, “Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance….To spend and waste time as though you had a million years.”

Upon recognizing that she cannot return to earth, Emily says, “I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed....Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses, and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”

None of us wants to experience a life-threatening illness or an accident to shock us into a powerful appreciation of life. The significance of spiritual gratitude is that it is experienced because life is sacred, precious, spirit-filled, and holy, not because of (or because of the lack of) any one life incident. Today and during the week, amidst the business and busyness of our work, our families, our concerns, and our chores, we need to remember how fortunate we are to be here, to be alive.

Every morning our first thought should be “thank you.” As Malcolm, a ninety-year old parishioner put it, “Any day my eyes pop open is a great day.” One day, I know, it will be otherwise.

- Edwin C. Lynn, minister emeritus