Every long weekend is good, and spectacular weather is great, but the two put together are a gift.

We just celebrated Thanksgiving here in Canada.  Those of us lucky enough to live in Toronto had three days of brilliant sunshine and highs of 25˚ Celsius.  On the holiday Monday, my family and I took one of the tiny ferries to Ward Island in Lake Ontario.  The Toronto Islands are only a ten minute ride from downtown Toronto, but they feel a world apart.  There are paths all along the water, playgrounds, playing fields, picnic sites and parks.  Moored yachts glow in anticipation of future sails.  There are virtually no cars allowed on the islands, so we ambled contentedly in a Venice-like quiet, half-dazed by the good fortune of warm weather, time and such a lovely place to enjoy them both.  Strangers smiled at us and we smiled back.

We ate a picnic on the boardwalk, “feasting” (Jamie’s word) on walnuts and new season Macintosh apples.  Then we went to the beach itself, where brave hearts were actually swimming.  In October!  We rolled up our trousers and waded in.  We collected rocks for Jamie’s growing collection.  We did a terrible job of trying to teach our Mira how to long- jump in the sand, laughing at our own ineptitude and relishing what would undoubtedly be the last feel of warm sand under our feet for the season.

The day was a gift and I was grateful for it.  This gratitude would no doubt win the approval of a growing coterie of thinkers and writers who tell us that we ought to “practice gratitude” as part of creating a happy and meaningful life.  (In the not so very distant past, of course, this practice was more or less built into culture through organized religion and community rituals, like Thanksgiving itself.  Now, it seems, we’re left to our own devices to figure it out.)  And yet, while these writers’ hearts might be in the right place, in fact I think much of the writing about gratitude is banal.  It conceptualizes gratitude as a sort of generalized thankfulness for stuff and fails to spell out what it actually demands of us.

But gratitude does demand something of us, and it’s in meeting those demands that its power to uplift and create meaning is fulfilled.

First, gratitude asks that we see the special – even sacred – moments of existence as gifts, as Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly discuss in All Things Shining.  In other words, our extra day, warm weather, and access to the Toronto Islands weren’t just nice little bonuses, they were specific gifts for which to be grateful.  Sure they were products of calendars, meteorological phenomena and public policy, but they added up to something rare and special, and they created a memory for us to keep.

Gratitude also demands that we recognize and accept gifts when they come to us.  After all, we perceive a person who overlooks a gift we give them, or who returns it for something else as at least a little ungrateful.  Friends made comic hay out of this with Ross’s devastation upon learning (at Thanksgiving no less) that Rachel has exchanged a gift he gave her for store credit, leading to this exchange:

Rachel: Ross, could you pass me the yams?
Ross: Sure. Oh, and Joey’s got the mashed potatoes if you want to exchange them.

Rachel’s behaviour is so funny because we all get how obnoxious it is to give a gift and have someone not appreciate it.  But how many times do we overlook subtle gifts that present themselves?  The sunny day, the storm of autumn leaves fluttering down, the found hour to read, the cake that’s risen perfectly, the person who lets you in when traffic is heavy, the good sleep, the perfect cup of coffee, the written letter from a friend:  do we accept these as gifts, or barely note them in passing?  Theoretically, recognizing and accepting gifts would ask that we all slow down a bit, but that’s not exactly realistic for me, and I doubt it is for anyone else out there.  But we all can cultivate a kind of attentiveness and readiness to action that means that we accept them when they come.

And here’s a thornier part of gratitude:  gratitude implies that we are grateful to someone or something.  Gifts come from somewhere.  So where does one direct that gratitude?  When someone writes you a letter, it’s straightforward:  you direct gratitude at the sender.  However, when the gift is a sunny day, it gets a bit trickier.  Some will say they direct their gratitude to “the universe”, but I frankly have no way of conceptualizing the universe that makes it realistic for me to thank it for a warm autumn day.  Those of us who have a system of faith have a readymade answer:  God, or perhaps the gods.  But if you do not have faith in a divinity that gives gifts, it may be enough simply to acknowledge that a gift has come from somewhere.  Conceding, even celebrating, that there might be an agent of origin outside of ourselves, even if it simply lies in the nature of the thing itself, deepens our relationship with the gift.  We are blessed, not just lucky.

And this is ultimately the point.  People give gifts for three reasons:  to establish and deepen relationships, to create webs of obligation and to mark occasions.  It’s through these dimensions, not just “feeling grateful”, that our gratitude for the gifts we receive adds meaning and fulfilment to our lives.  Gratitude helps us to deepen our relationship to the giver and even to the gift itself, to feel a sense of obligation in return for receiving the gift, and to recognize and mark a special moment in time that stands out from the rush of everyday life.

So accept gifts.  See them when they’re offered, enjoy them, celebrate their nature and their role in your life, and think about what they bind you to.

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