There are two types of gratitude experiences. One is recognition of (and the flip side of not denying) kindness done to us. The other is acknowledgment of having received more than our due.
The first, recognition of a kindness done for us is an attitude that’s expressed verbally. The Jew in Temple times brought the first fruit of his produce of the land of Israel to Jerusalem and gave thanks to God.
There is another type of gratitude where words are much fewer. It’s hard to even express it in words.
According to Jewish law, four situations require a person to give thanks: one who went on an ocean trip, one who traversed the desert, one who was deathly ill and subsequently healed and one who was held captive and then redeemed. Thanksgiving is required because in these situations there was a danger to life and the person was saved from the danger. A miracle was done for me!
In Temple times the person had to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice to acknowledge this. Today a blessing is said out loud in the synagogue: Blessed are you God, our God, king of the universe, who bestows kindness to those who are obliged, that has bestowed me with all good.
What is the added level of being obligated to give thanks when life is in danger?
The key phrase is “those who are obliged.” We said before that when we recognize kindness done for us we have to feel appreciation and also verbally express this feeling. We have to be appreciative even if we think we’re deserving of the kindness, whether because it’s the person’s job anyway, or we expect it because of the relationship we have with this person.
In a situation of danger to life our status changes to one of being obligated. The word “obligated” is reminiscent of being undeserving or guilty or indebted. In a fundamental way we’re not deserving of life itself, because what can we possibly do to be able to deserve life? Even more so we are, in a fundamental way not deserving of a second chance at life.
Thus, the concept of being essentially obliged to give thanks is expressed when our life has been saved but actually it is true any time we are given something beyond our “portion” in this world.
How can we learn to be appreciative? The basic recognition of kindness includes whatever life gives us. We can practice recognizing kindness by simply noticing it.
How can we practice acknowledging that we have been given something beyond our portion? How can we even know what our portion is?
When we receive anything from anyone and we ask “Is this my right? Is this beyond my portion in life, an added extra perk life has sent my way? As soon as we start asking the question we stop assuming. Questioning is the opposite of assuming. By questioning we throw all the assumptions into doubt. We stop assuming that what we want we must have. We stop assuming that everything is our God-given right. That doesn’t mean we don’t stand up for our human rights and dignity but we realize we are essentially indebted to God for everything.
And then once we let go of the assumption that everything is our right we take it as a given that everything in life (both our “given portion” in life and the extra perks) is a kindness beyond what we deserve and feeling that way will make us happy with everything we have.