Monday, July 23, 2012

Enough is as Good as a Feast

”If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart.

Enough is as good as a feast…if you can enjoy every sandwich.

Warren Zevon, who was asked by David Letterman if he had any advice about his terminal lung cancer, said, “I enjoy every sandwich.” That saying has become so famous some people don’t even know Zevon said it. But everyone knows what it means: be grateful for everything you have. Enjoy all of it.

The best things in life are free. Enough is as good as a feast. These are clichés, but clichés wouldn’t be clichés if there wasn’t much truth to them.

There is too much envy in this world and not enough gratitude and appreciation. Actually, envy and gratitude are antithetical. Where there is envy, there is no gratitude, and where there is no gratitude there is no happiness.(As Cicero said, "Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.")

Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Oddly enough, its opposite, gratitude, is not one of the Four Cardinal Virtues. Nor is it one of the Three Theological Virtues (faith, hope and charity).

Yet the fact that envy and gratitude are opposites has been noticed as far back as Aesop (“The Wolf and the Crane”), and I’m sure long before him.

There are entire political systems, such as socialism, which exist in an attempt to eliminate envy. There are no such systems to create gratitude (political and economic liberty are closest). In fact, I can’t imagine any political system based on force (which socialism is) that can generate gratitude. You can’t force people to be grateful.

The serpent in the story of the Garden of Eden has traditionally been a symbol of envy, hate, anger and the desire for revenge (John Milton understood this in his Paradise Lost). The serpent certainly isn’t a symbol of gratitude and appreciation.

People understand the feelings of envy (although no one wants to admit it), hate, anger, revenge, humiliation…but gratitude and appreciation? They’re in short supply.

The late psychoanalyst Melanie Klein wrote a seminal book, Envy and Gratitude. She found there is a sequence: envy, guilt, reparations, gratitude. (You can see this sequence is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and to a lesser extent in the Robert DeNiro movie, The Mission).

In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov envies the old woman, murders her, finally confesses out of guilt, makes reparations by serving time, and though his love for Sonia feels gratitude. In The Mission Robert DiNiro’s character kills his brother out of jealousy (a form of envy), feels guilty and makes reparations by ceasing to be a slaver and devoting his life to protecting the Indians he had enslaved. There is no sign in the movie he was grateful…but he had found peace of mind.

I sometimes try to model my life on that of a dog (who’s going to be more gratitude to see you if you leave them in a car for half an hour – your spouse or your dog?). Several times I’ve seen people in parks with their dogs. They throw a ball; the dog chases it and brings it back, then drops the ball at the owners’ feet and barks for it to be thrown again. The dog is immensely enjoying this simple pleasure. Do the dogs feel gratitude and appreciation? Maybe I’m imagining the whole thing, but it sure seems like they do.

Perhaps only in some form of love can there be gratitude. That’s the message of Envy and Gratitude. And Crime and Punishment. And those dogs, too, And I suppose if you can enjoy every sandwich that, too, is a kind of love.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” – G. K. Chesterton.

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