When I was young, I would count down the days to my birthday. 12…11…10…days felt like an eternity. Most of the time I did not know how it was going to be celebrated, whether it's an evening at Chuck E. Cheese's or just having cake at home, nor did I know who would be there or what presents I would receive. I just knew it was my special day – no existential analysis of people wanting to mark my presence in their lives. As I have gotten older, when self-preoccupation often follows self-awareness, I would much rather have my birthday go unnoticed. It is not that I have an attachment to my youth or fear of growing older. Rather, I unflinchingly try to avoid any prolonged attention directed at me, and a whole day a year is much too prolonged.
This year’s birthday was no different. Anxiety was building up during the days leading towards it with friends asking how I would like to celebrate. (I would not.) We settled on something very simple – a small gathering of close friends at my place. The night was a lot of fun and full of laughter, but even then, I did not allow myself to be present to the moment. Afterward, I shared with a friend a strange feeling of melancholy and was trying to understand its source. I came to realize that I was trying to understand and analyze why my friends wanted to spend the day and evening with me. What gifts have I given or shared with them? What have I done or said? What value did I add? The frustration of not having a satisfying answer to those questions forced me to accept that my friends celebrate me because of who I am and not what I have done. It is no coincidence, then, that my operational relationship with God is one in which I have a compulsion to earn God’s love. When I sense it, I become skeptical about why I should have deserved such a gift.
St. Ignatius says ingratitude is “the cause, beginning, and origin of all evils and sins.” Before, it seemed to me that pride was the root of all sin. By definition, pride is the inordinate inflating of one’s self-importance. Ironically, my desire to avoid my birthday celebration is prideful. However, what St. Ignatius proposes focuses on God’s goodness and not my shortcomings. Ingratitude is my inability to see God’s magnanimity. St. Ignatius emphasis on gratitude directs my attention to the nature of God – God is generous and lavish with God’s love. If I truly lived this truth, my only expression is to reciprocate love with love.
Returning and resting in God's freely given love for me and by extension, the love I receive from friends and family compels me to live more gratefully. What correlates to living gratefully? Revisiting my childhood and experiencing my nephews offer a clue. My nephews are keenly aware of their uniqueness. They also receive love without any inhibition and perhaps are subconsciously aware that they are in fact dependent on love. Also, when I am living child-like, I experience everything with freshness. One of my nephews recently gleefully squealed, "I can't believe this TASTINESS!” after finishing a slice of Papa John’s pepperoni pizza which he must have had countless times before. If every encounter was met with fresh eyes and ears, I would live with an openness to receive the moment as a gift and not something I was entitled to or did not deserve. A sunrise becomes a signpost to God’s infinite creative beauty rather than the beginning of just another workday. A conversation with a friend is an opportunity to hear a story I have not yet heard rather than a routine check-in. A birthday becomes an event to experience how I am loved instead of a day to avoid.
When Jesus says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 18:3),” I believe it can be taken as unless I live more gratefully, I will not be able to see all the beauty that is before me. Experiencing goodness/beauty/heaven and living gratefully go hand-in-hand. Everything that manifests from God is beautiful and the only condition to truly see it is to gratefully receive it as a gift. Likewise, when I am sensitive to the beauty all around me, living with gratitude becomes a natural response.