November 22, 2001
I say a prayer of thanksgiving first thing every morning.
"Mode ani lefanecha" are the words, said even while I'm still in bed. "I thankfully acknowledge before You." The English translation is awkward, so I'm glad to say the Hebrew words. I wish I didn't mean them quite so much.
It's dark and silent when I wake up. With eyes shut, I hear my breath. My sweet breath. I inhale. Instinctively, I count the beats, and unconsciously feel inside myself with invisible fingers, to take my measure.
How goes it today in my body: are we smooth or shallow? Ah, the ribs move easily up and down. Thank You.
It's a blessing owed to God that I am capable of a deep, deep breath.
Until I got lung cancer, saying thanks was a rather distant, scientific, objective event. Sort of like paying taxes, I gave Heaven its due.
I knew I was lucky to be alive each morning, but my knowledge was largely theoretical. I could be dead, I guess, had I made a wrong turn on the highway. Though I've buried my own, I understood mortality the way I understood that birds flew south, largely by reputation. Basically, I have always been your standard thankful person, dog-paddling to dodge the nasty shoals of fate.
Cancer changed everything. It is a disease of the odds. Some 85 percent of lung cancer patients were smokers. I was not.
Most lung cancer patients die within five years. I intend to be among that minority, too.
Who controls the luck of the draw? Sept. 11 has given me lots of company in an understanding of humility. As a nation, we've received the communal equivalent of a cancer diagnosis. So, let us ponder a few basic questions, as we sit down to turkey and pumpkin pie.
Maybe the first question is not the petulant, Who has power? but the more profitable, who is powerless? I do lots to encourage my own healing. But I never do it alone. And even with the best medical and alternative care, I'm still in the great unknown since the cell has a mind of its own. This reality makes me grateful. Once I recognize how little of my course belongs to me I can appreciate what I have received.
This whole business of gratitude is not my natural bent. I am a '60s child, believing in the American system of hard work bringing reward. I worshipped in the religion of the Self-Made. In this theology, the brute force of intelligence, will and desire are capable of muscling past an impervious universe. The Self-Made genuflects before ambition, and spurns its opposite, bad luck.
Terrorism is like cancer: it sunders expectations of safety and long life, of ordinary living and personal strivings. Terrorism and cancer makes a fallen Jericho of the temples of the Self-Made.
The World Trade Center tragedy has made us a thankful nation, as perhaps the Pilgrims might have felt after enduring a harsh winter.
Thankful, like a tofu-eating cancer patient who now fully understands the odds of biology.
Thankful, not greedy. Humbled, not entitled. Beholden, not exempted, by the great mystery of survival: the realization that the turkey, the trimmings, the easy breath and the easy flight are all divine.
Gratitude begins in awe, in seeing the whole human enterprise as audacious. It rejects the very notion of the mundane and sees the extraordinary even in the ordinary. Nothing is taken for granted. All is mystery.
Two skyscrapers burned to the ground in 45 minutes. How could that be? Five thousand innocents tossed into an incinerator. Why? When they walked into the New York skyscraper that morning, did they know the odds had changed?
And what about those who escaped destiny: those who worked every day in the World Trade Center, but who were miraculously late to work, detained by medical appointments or taking children to their first day of school -- what force or inspiration can they claim?
Perhaps that's why the Hebrew words I say each morning are not merely "thank you," but "I owe this good result to You." "Thank you" suggests that I got what I deserved. "I owe this good result to You" means that somehow, once again, I have been gifted, spared, blessed. My generation has a terrible problem with prayer. Reference to God makes us blush more vividly than does porno.
"When I was untroubled I thought, 'I shall never be shaken,'" says the 30th Psalm, of Recovery from Illness, "for You, God, when You were pleased, made me firm as a mighty mountain."
It's only an illusion that we are ourselves "firm as a mighty mountain." Life itself is vulnerability.
Gratitude brings sanity.