By Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB
This article, written in 2001, remains powerfully relevant to our world today. While global challenges such as the refugee crisis and climate change threaten to overwhelm us with a sense of helplessness, Br. David reminds us that we all have a valuable role to play. Five "small" steps can make a difference. "Who would have foreseen that gratitude could shine forth with such new brightness in these dark days? May it light our way."
This morning, I buried a chipmunk. The cat’s teeth had left no marks. The cheeky fellow seemed to just have curled up to sleep in the hole I had dug between early chrysanthemums. As I piled a few trowels full of soil on this little grave, I remembered with a smile childhood games of burying dead birds and bugs and mice. Suddenly I thought of humans — thousands upon thousands — whom no one ever buried, because not even their bodies were left, victims of violence from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to lower Manhattan. Gratitude? The very word seems utterly out of place, even offensive, under the given circumstances.
And yet, that we speak of “given” circumstances is significant. Whatever is given is gift; and the appropriate response to any gift is gratitude. But what could be the gift in this case? The gift we were given by the Wake-up Call of September 11th is an unprecedented opportunity. The gift within every gift is opportunity. For us, these days, it is the opportunity to wake up — wake up to the madness of violence and counter-violence. After all, we witnessed merely the most recent link in a chain of revenge for revenge. This recent retaliation is certainly not the first, but it gives us a unique opportunity to wake up and to make it the last.
Strange though it is, many of us were able to ignore the vicious circle of violence against violence — our own and that of others — as long as it was happening far away. We were asleep. This was a rough awakening. What now? We can show ourselves grateful for the Wake-up Call by staying awake, by acting wakefully. A danger recognized and faced is cut in half. The danger is violence — regardless who commits it, terrorists or legitimate governments. No rhetoric, no posturing can any longer obscure the fact that violence breeds violence. We must break that cycle of madness.
Violence has its roots in every heart. It is in my own heart that I must recognize fear, agitation, coldness, alienation, and the impulse to blind anger. Here in my heart I can turn fear into courageous trust, agitation and confusion into stillness, isolation into a sense of belonging, alienation into love, and irrational reaction into Common Sense. The creative imagination of gratefulness will suggest to each one of us how to go about this task. I will list here five small gestures which have helped me personally show my gratitude for the Wake-up Call and stay awake.
All gratitude expresses trust. Suspicion will not even recognize a gift as gift: who can prove that it isn’t a lure, a bribe, a trap? Gratefulness has the courage to trust and so overcomes fear. The air has been electrified by fearfulness these days, a fearfulness fostered and manipulated by politicians and the media. There lies our greatest danger: fear perpetuates violence. Mobilize the courage of your heart, as the truly awake ones are doing. Say one word today that gives a fearful person courage.
Because gratitude expresses courage, it spreads calm. Calm of this kind is quite compatible with deep emotions. In fact, the mass hysteria rampant all around betrays confusion rather than deep feeling — superficial agitation rather than a deep current of compassion. Join the truly compassionate ones who are calm and strong. From the stillness of your heart’s core reach out. Calmly hold someone’s hand today and spread calm.
When you are grateful, your heart is open — open towards others, open for surprise. In the days since the Wake-up Call we have seen remarkable examples of this openness: strangers helping strangers often in heroic ways. Others turn away, isolate themselves, dare even less than at other times to look at each other. Violence begins with isolation. Break this pattern. Make contact with people whom you normally ignore — eye-contact at least — with the agent at the toll booth, the parking lot attendant, someone on the elevator. Look a stranger in the eyes today and realize that there are no strangers.
You can feel either grateful or alienated, but never both at the same time. Gratefulness drives out alienation; there is not room for both in the same heart. When you are grateful you know that you belong to a network of give-and-take and you say “yes” to that belonging. This “yes” is the essence of love. You need no words to express it; a smile will do to put your “yes” into action. Don’t let it matter to you whether or not the other one smiles back. Give someone an unexpected smile today and so contribute your share to peace on earth.
What your gratefulness does for yourself is as important as what it does for others. Gratefulness boosts your sense of belonging; your sense of belonging in turn boosts your Common Sense. Your “yes” to belonging attunes you to the common concerns shared by all human beings. After the Wake-up Call, nothing else makes sense but Common Sense. We have only one enemy, our common enemy: violence. Common Sense tells us: we can stop violence only by stopping to act violently; war is no way to peace. Listen to the news today and put at least one item to the test of Common Sense.
The five steps I am suggesting here are small, but they work. It helps that they are small: anyone can take them. Imagine a country whose citizens — maybe even its leaders — are brave, calm, and open towards each other; a country whose people realize that all human beings belong together as one family and must act accordingly; a country guided by Common Sense. To the extent to which we show ourselves not hateful but grateful this becomes reality. Who would have foreseen that gratitude could shine forth with such new brightness in these dark days? May it light our way.
— September 2001
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