Christmas can teach us eternal gratitude

December 24, 2015

Over the festive period, I enjoy giving and receiving presents like everyone else. There is a profound joy to be achieved in sharing and pleasing our friends and family. And if we delve deeper into that feeling of happiness, it is possible to experience also a sense of thankfulness which can enrich our lives in a way that possessions cannot. This is a greater consciousness of what it means to be human: to be thankful for the ability to love and to be loved, and to experience another passing year.

This certainly was the view of Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist who died quite recently. When he learnt that his cancer was terminal, Mr Sacks wrote four essays brought together in a book called Gratitude in which he explored his feelings towards mortality.

Curiously, the doctor noted, that when he had thought he might die 40 years ago, after a fall while mountaineering, he was “assailed by memories, both good and bad. Most were in a mode of gratitude — gratitude for what I had been given by others, gratitude too that I had been able to give something back”. This is the logical extension of what we are all feeling now; the thankfulness that we have been able to matter at all.

Mr Sacks later explains well the perfect harmony that we hope to achieve when we marry our purpose with appreciation. He wrote: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and an adventure.”

So we see that gratitude itself is the ultimate gift. After all, no one – however cherished or beloved – can wrap up for us this sense of peace, awareness, and recognition. We must find it within ourselves, through our understanding of what truly matters, and through striving to be useful.

Not that it is always easy. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge had to be frightened by visions of his mortality before he could begin to understand. But in the end, he learns as we all may: “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

This, then, is true gratitude; a heightened perception of our passing lives, and a conscious appreciation for the hours passed, an anticipation of the minutes yet to come, a determination not to waste a second.

We may experience this gratitude in miniature when we share our gifts and good fortune, but we should also all take a moment to meditate on the greater happiness we receive every day from the gift of life itself.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation