Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
In the catalogue of values deemed essential for a virtuous life, gratitude is among the most universal. Rarely (if ever) does one find a system of thought that does not hold appreciativeness as a core ideal. The positive impact of being thankful is recognized in religious East and West, sciences hard and soft, political philosophies right and left. As a statement of principle, most would agree with Ben Zoma’s maxim: “Who is happy? One who is content with one’s portion.”
This sentiment, whether intuited from life experience or encountered in a written variation, is much easier to agree with than to enact. The “attitude of gratitude,” as it is popularly espoused, is regularly confined to the realm of aspirations. Multitudinous worries, complaints and regrets divert our attention from the beauty and wonder surrounding us, and from the many gifts of which we are the recipients.
Enumerating the plethora of potential sources of gratitude would be as cumbersome as it is unnecessary. The issue is not that we fail to recognize that many things deserve our humble thanks. Rather, our sense of appreciation is dulled by the burdens of everyday life. Our problems—big and small, real and imagined—are a perpetual and negative distraction. To modify a phrase, “I think, therefore I worry.”
Vincent Van Gogh, a man who was no stranger to distress, devised a way of transcending nagging concerns and cultivating gratitude. He was deeply attracted to what he considered the vital relationship of music, art, spirituality and the harmony of nature. He included this keen remark in a letter to his brother Theo: “In the end we shall have enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.”
Van Gogh penned this comment in response to common forecasts of his time, which painted a bleak future filled with anxiety, unrest, war and cultural bankruptcy. In his assessment, this still-familiar prediction could be ameliorated or even erased by grasping and being attentive to the interlocking harmony of all things in nature.
This “natural spirituality” derived from Van Gogh’s impression of a Japanese painter fixated on a single blade of grass. The blade “leads him to draw every plant, and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. . . . Come now, isn’t it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?”
Van Gogh was convinced that adopting this perspective could effortlessly switch thoughts from worry to appreciation. Harmony, not dissonance, would become the dominant musical metaphor. Of course, an understanding of the world as congruous sound is not arrived at without effort, and it is doubtful if Van Gogh reached it himself. But, if pursued with diligence, it can potentially alter our mode of thinking for the better. Living musically is a frame of mind from which gratitude naturally and abundantly pours forth. Though not easy to obtain or simple to sustain, it is a healthy outlook worthy of pursuit.
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