When we all entered lockdown in March, my inbox was filled with beautiful poems of solidarity and the websites I visited for spiritual sustenance were filled with uplifting statements. I already knew that I live in overlapping communities marked by generosity and care for the other, and so I saw the world as reflecting these values. This was not solely naïveté. For example, I found that my daily walks tuned me into nature right in my own neighborhood, cueing an appreciation for such simple things as a bird singing on a budding tree, in a way I had no memory of experiencing before. I rose up in gratitude for such small favors as well as the larger knowledge that my small suburban home, my husband’s continued employment, and some (hopefully) smart financial advice upon retirement afforded me safety and comfort during what I thought would be a few more months ahead.
As we left the Passover season and spring started turning towards summer, I had a rude awakening. Death rates climbed, the news from New York City — home to my extended family— was horrific, and I descended into a period of sorrow. The sorrow turned towards anger with the killings of innocent African-American citizens, and the incompetence of a government that I thought could not sink any lower than it had already. Still, something within me continued to rise up. I truly believe that the gratitude I felt when I saw that bird singing so many months ago is the key. However, the gratitude has been tempered and dare I say reconstructed.
For several years, I have had the privilege of studying Mussar with fellow Adat Shalom members, led by a teacher from Rabbi Ira Stone’s Center for Contemporary Mussar (CCM) based in Philadelphia. In Mussar, we are encouraged to take an accounting of our soul by working on character traits like patience, order, honesty, and so on. This is the level of repair. Sometimes, we can get stuck in the negative, though, not moving from self-talk such as “if only I was more patient, I would not have been snippy with my partner for not doing the dishes”. Stone and his team realized that true transformation requires a bigger picture, looking at our traits from above, not just below. And, to do this, we need to start with gratitude.
Thus, as the reality sinks in that we are wandering in a desert perhaps never to return to the old normal, gratitude deepens — and rises. Every time I see a friend in the flesh, hear a new song in a service, or rediscover a dormant interest like poetry, I feel strengthened in the face of continuing challenges. By allowing me to make that political phone call with a smile, or request help from my partner with a kind word, I hope that gratitude enables me to move the needle towards the transformation we so badly need in our world. And, God willing, provide further strength should the times demand it.