There once was a very wise and noble man, who before he passed into the next life, imparted to his devoted and loving wife a gift of immeasurable value and beauty.
The old man beckoned his wife over and asked her, “Do you know what the key to happiness is? … Gratitude. ”
As you may have already guessed, the wise old man who gave his wife this precious nugget of truth, was none other than Dietrich von Hildebrand. During the last four weeks of his life, he would go on to write a book on gratitude … his last intellectual contribution, his last gift of himself to humanity.
Yes, you read that right, Hildebrand claimed that the key to happiness is gratitude, not a critically acclaimed self-help book, nor daily exercise combined with a well-balanced diet. Gratitude: one of the more humble and simple virtues, which for most of us conjures up images of pastel wooden signs sold at Hallmark. You know, the ones with the positive quotes such as, “Count Your Blessings,” that you used to buy for your mom every holiday, birthday, etc. along with a knock off Yankee candle.
What then makes Hildebrand’s understanding of gratitude so different from our previous Hallmark card understanding of the word? Why for him, is this seemingly inconsequential virtue so prophetic and incredibly pivotal to our lives, making it THE key to happiness, and the object of his last thoughts and words?
Let us start by calling to mind Hildebrand’s own definition of gratitude;
a response to the goodness of another person, primarily the goodness of God.
For it is Him we have to thank for all the many blessings which we count.
Here, Hildebrand is speaking of gratitude as more than just an abstract virtue, but as an attitude which must be engendered, as a pair of tinted glasses which perfect our vision of reality and of the world. With this enlightened vision, we wake up every morning and decide to be thankful, thankful for the ability to breathe, thankful for another day of life, thankful for our own existence. When we begin to do this, we then realize that there is nothing in our lives that we have not received, nothing that can not be understood as a gift, as a blessing.
Unfortunately, there are many flaws within our culture’s philosophies which when coupled with our own vices, make it difficult for us to see everything as a gift from above, as blessings which we did not and could not have bestowed upon ourselves. For instance, in our current era, we have become too concerned with what we claim to possess. We are captivated with the notion of ‘possession.’’ We proudly and boisterously proclaim that we possess a right to do whatever we want, we possess the right to live however we desire, and we possess a right to do whatever we wish with our bodies. We end up assuming too much by assuming that we “own” so much.
Hildebrand declares that this mindset is flawed. He claims, “we do not have a “right” to anything, everything is a gift.”
We may not want to agree with Hildebrand but I think we can at least admit that, to some degree, we all desire control over our lives, our minds, and our bodies. However, these desires prove to be futile. For, in a matter of seconds a loved one can be taken from us, our dreams may crash and burn before our eyes, or our bodies might contract a life-threatening disease. We lose whatever “control” we thought we once possessed and have no idea what the future holds for us. All we can ask ourselves is, “What now?”
This leads us to question, how the words “Thank you” can pass from our lips when we are experiencing this loss of control, these moments where there is only darkness, pain, and suffering? How can I engender feelings of genuine gratitude during the coldest moments of my desolation? For many, the world has always been a perpetual valley of tears, whether they suffer from physical, mental, or spiritual ailments or perhaps all three. We can empathize with each other, but no one will ever know exactly what you’re going through, feel your pain, or face your demons. And honestly, that’s a scary realization which makes us feel utterly alone.
I don’t mean to depress my readers, but I can’t help but feel deep sorrow whenever I read of the growing number of assisted suicides occurring around the world, 14 year olds and 4 year olds deciding to end their lives. We wept and mourned over the suicide of Robin Williams and yet we encourage children to “pull the plug.” This is a controversial issue, and I understand that many of these cases involve people with severe illness which involve great pain and unbearable living conditions. That being said, I still find it unsettling that suicide is becoming a culturally accepted remedy. Where will we draw the line? I feel that we empathize with those that choose death over suffering because we have come to treat pain and suffering as the greatest evil. But I implore you to not accept this. For surely it is not. The greatest evil in this world lies not in the incurable disease or in the loneliest nights. The greatest evil, is the lie that life is not worth living. When we have been convinced that life is not a precious gift, we have allowed evil to win.
Pain and suffering must not be allowed to have the last word. We can be grateful even amidst times of great despair and sorrow. For where there is life there is the possibility of happiness yet to come, as well as the reality of redemption which turns our every agony into a glory.
Alice von Hildebrand assures us that we can always find light in the darkness. She advises us to picture the happier times in our lives, as the experience of living in a world of great bright light. Sometimes this bright light can be blinding. We are surrounded by so many riches and pleasures that we began to lose sight of those things which possess true value. We can forget to acknowledge the value of friendship, family, or love.
Thus, when the dark night arrives, and swallows us whole, our eyes begin to re-adjust. We yearn for but a small glimmer of light, a small ray of hope which not only sheds light but gives us a renewed sight. We were once blinded to what truly matters, to what truly has value and importance. Such as the kind words spoken to a man who has not experienced kindness in years, the warm hand of your wife as she clasps yours while kneeling at your hospital bedside, or the realization that you are not alone in this world and that there is a heavenly hand watching over you.
Personally speaking, it was when my Dad was diagnosed with cancer that I experienced in a brand new way the preciousness of life and the beauty of family and friends. Hard times remind us to not take anything for granted, especially those things which truly possess goodness and truth.
This is what I believe Hildebrand meant by the key to happiness. For if we receive everything as a gift, our bright mornings as well as our dark nights, we will forget, even if only for a moment, about what ails us and be reminded of what we have been blessed with.
Alice von Hildebrand once said that the two most precious words in the human vocabulary, are “Thank you.” A bold statement, which I wholeheartedly can attest to and feel compelled to thank her for. Thank you Alice and Dietrich, for introducing the world to the key to happiness, an invaluable gift, a beautiful token of truth, a modest but pivotal virtue which we can practice till the end of our days.