Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Walter Mason on gratitude and reading "9/11 and the Art of Happiness"

“Feel gratitude for everyone who has been or currently is in your life, remembering that everyone has brought you a gift.” Rev. Jerry D. Troyer, Coming OUT to Ourselves

Dealing with pain, professional disappointment and personal dissatisfaction can be overwhelming. Despair, it seems, is always just at the borders of our existence, waiting to creep into our mind at the slightest invitation. When we crumple into bed at the end of an exhausting day it can be hard to really keep any perspective and go through all of the wonderful blessings that are doubtless ours. Instead, we are much more likely to indulge in a litany of complaint, regret and even anger. We go to sleep with our worries and wonder why our jaws are clenched hard when we wake up in the morning.

Recently I have read Simon Kennedy’s extraordinary memoir 9/11 and the Art of Happiness, and it has caused me to confront my ingratitude head on. An account of the death of his mother, a passenger on the plane that went crashing into Pentagon in September 2011, the book is a loving and hopeful testament to a son’s love and the memory of his mother.

There is much for Simon Kennedy to be mad at. He could have chosen the route of bitterness and spent his years railing at the world and the various forces in it that contributed to his mother’s death. But instead he has taken this terrible experience and turned it into a tale of healing, an account of how humour, resilience and abiding love ultimately triumph and prove most of us to be unstoppably, wonderfully strong and wise.

A wannabe stand-up comedian who made his living at a stationery shop between gigs, Kennedy’s life is irrevocably changed when he learns of the death of his mother. Suddenly he is a minor celebrity, a figure of macabre fascination, a local representative of a global event of terrifying proportions. He negotiates the corporate apologists, the press, the boorish priests and the strange reminders of his mother’s life that keep popping up, perhaps reminding him to treasure her happy memory rather than be caught up in the tragedy of her end.

In Western cultures we have a strange relationship with gratitude, not really being comfortable with those people who too readily express satisfaction with life, no matter what its challenges. In a recent and very stimulating piece on gratitude, The Philosopher’s Mail wrote:

We know in theory that we should be grateful for what we have, but day to day, we are dominated by striving: for better relationships, working lives, communities and nations. The advocates of gratitude sound like they are recommending that we be content with how things already are.

And that is, perhaps, how we could critique Simon Kennedy. Does his resignation allow his mother’s murderers off the hook? Perhaps. But perhaps his attitude encompasses a more generous vision of the universe, one that recognizes that the wonder and blessing of his mother’s life is something to be celebrated rather than used as a platform for some kind of political vendetta. His experience seems to accord him a world-weary wisdom arrived at too soon in life. He sees quite quickly the bigness of the world and its events. When the airline sends him a letter confirming the fact that his mother, in all likelihood, is dead, he writes:

I laughed to myself at its pointlessness – I had determined all that information by myself by the time the sun came up on 12 September...My initial feeling that American Airlines had wasted my time quickly turned into the realisation that I had been wasting my own time. I hadn’t been an active participant in life over the past few weeks: I’d been sitting around waiting for someone to tell me something new that would jump-start my life beyond this point. I was starting to get sick of my own company and despite my occasional teary episodes, I knew it was time to get on with it.

This is the source of the wisdom and beauty of Kennedy’s book: the realisation that, in spite of the immensity of his suffering and the drama of his mother’s end, it could all be so much worse. He has a Zen-like cognizance of the preciousness of human existence.

And so it is with all our lives. The endings, the beginnings, the difficult middles, all are sources of sadness and exasperation but also, very often, the reason why we should be glad to be alive.

I am so grateful for having read this beautiful book and for being made to gain a little perspective in my own life.

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