"We need to end the conspiracy of silence, the practice of hiding all experience that we cannot explain, so that we can rediscover the beauty of mystery and the power of questions.” - Julio Olalla
Reflections on Gratitude:
When I was a boy, I would hear my father tell stories of the experiences he had during the civil war in Spain. One of them took place in the northern coast of Spain, near the city of Llanes where he was in charge of distributing provisions to the republican troops. The Nationalists had surrounded the area and there was no food available for civilians or troops. The situation was so bad that several times they ate rats.
One afternoon, a neighbor came to my father’s office and begged that he please give her some food, anything… her father was dying of hunger. My father had a hard bit of bread in his desk drawer that he had saved for many days, and which was the only thing he had to eat. Faced with this woman’s desperation and torn between hunger and compassion, he gave her that bit of bread. This happened at the beginning of 1937, and soon after my father fled to France. Later, after another moving story, he ended up in Chile.
In 1967 my father and I traveled to Spain. We rented a small Seat 600 and together visited many of the places he wanted to see after so many years of being away. One afternoon we arrived in the small town where the story of the bread took place. We stopped in front of the house where his office had been during the war. He became very emotional when he saw it, surprised that it was still there, and began to tell me why this place meant so much to him. I looked with awe at this town, that until that moment had only existed as part of a story from childhood, and listened to my father speak as if I was in a dream.
Suddenly, a door from a neighboring house opened and a woman emerged, looking at us intensely. For a moment she hesitated, then she ran towards my father and asked, “you are Gregorio, right? Do you remember me? You gave me that bit of bread for my father during the war…” There was an exchange of looks, an anxious search through stored memories, a moment of immobility, and finally a long embrace amidst tears and whispers because words were simply insufficient to say what they wanted to say to each other.
That was my first encounter with the power of gratitude.
My second encounter happened five years later in Port Williams, at the edge of the Beagle Canal in the southernmost part of South America. There I found out that the last ethnically pure Ona native still lived. They called him grandfather Felipe. He was over seventy years old, had tanned skin, and moved and spoke slowly. I was enthralled with the possibility of meeting him. It was not difficult to find him. I introduced myself and said that I would be very honored to meet him and began to ask him questions about his life and his people.
At the beginning he answered in monosyllables and he studied me with his eyes as we walked along the edge of the water. We sat on the remains of an old dock. The conversation moved slowly and was filled with silences. Not far from where we were, a group of people were throwing garbage into the sea.
That’s when Grandfather Felipe changed his tone and said, with hopelessness and indignation, “you people, Julio is your name, right? You people don’t respect anything, you are not grateful for anything. Look at those people. The sea gives them gifts every day and they repay it with garbage. A tone of ancient dignity emerged from within him and he continued, “we the Ona lived always from the sea. Our life was the sea. Our father and our mother were the sea. That is why each day we show our gratitude, each day we thank it for its gifts. I continue to do so, how could it be any other way?”
I remember that I listened to him with great respect and at the same time I was disconcerted: how could we give thanks to the sea? That was something that I had never considered! It seemed to me inconceivable... give thanks to the sea? Thanks should be given to the fishermen, not the sea. At that moment my cultural history provided me with an explanation for what he was saying: these people act this way because they were primitive, they are animists.
The explanation let me put distance between what my intuition and grandfather Felipe’s indignation were telling me and what I as an ‘educated’ person was supposed to feel: a type of paternalism for these ‘primitive’ peoples, a paternalism that we now understand to be the arrogance of our times.
I never imagined that these two stories would be so important in my life, and that even though I would forget about them for a while, they would keep pushing me to reflect upon our culture and our times. The first story taught me about the relationship between gratitude and love. The second showed me how much our civilization has forced us to live in a disenchanted universe, empty of meaning, without purpose, and indifferent.
I would like to make a fundamental distinction between GRATITUDE and being THANKFUL. Gratitude is the emotion that we experience when we receive a gift. It moves us to reciprocate with another gift. The root of gratitude, gratis, means ‘for free’ in Spanish. Being thankful on the other hand, is the emotion we experience when we conclude a transaction, when the conditions for satisfaction that we set have been met. It moves us to manifest that that particular exchange has been completed. Both of these have great power and both have their role in living a good life.
Let us return to gratitude and the cosmology of our times. If the universe in which we live has no purpose, no meaning, if it is indifferent to human beings, if it lacks consciousness, if it is made up of matter and energy that simply follow deterministic laws of physics, if in the end all of this universe is nothing but a machine, how can I be thankful to nature for anything? How can I feel gratitude towards the sea or the forest? If the universe lacks a divinity, lacks sacredness, how can I treat it with reverence or respect? What exists is merely raw material, resources, that we human beings exploit, and we do so with ever more efficiency, as our domination and control over nature increases.
Jacques Monod writes from the perspective of science: “ man must finally awaken from his age-old dream to discover his total solitude, his radical strangeness. He knows now that, like a nomad, he stands at the margin of the universe where he must live. A universe deaf to his music, as indifferent to his hopes as to his sufferings—or to his crimes.” We therefore ask ourselves, “gratitude to what?”
From the prevailing hyper-rationalism, to express gratitude to the sea, to nature in general, can only occur because we project onto it our own humanity. This is contemptuously called animism, attributing human qualities to inanimate objects, that is, to things without a soul. According to this view, it is natural that the woman in my father’s story feel gratitude for his gift, but unnatural that the Ona feel gratitude for the sea. That is nothing more than despicable animism, once again, attributing a soul to that which has none.
The interesting thing however, is that the Ona left their ecosystem unperturbed while we, with our rationally impeccable wisdom create a disaster out of any ecosystem that crosses our path.
From the perspective of our ontology, we see ourselves as observers, separate from what we observe. From this perspective, the world is made up of parts and we define ourselves as subjects, disconnected both from each other and from the world that surrounds us.
This concept of who we are is deeply rooted in our civilization, in our technology, and in our common sense. It was understood in this way by some of the most famous thinkers of our time: Adam Smith when he defined his ‘Economic Man,” Descartes when he deduced “I am,” and Darwin when he described individual phenotypes competing for resources. We understand economics and evolution as phenomena based in competition without much space for collaboration and for gifts. We therefore understand how to be thankful but we are left with little room for gratitude.
In this prevailing view of the world, with its immense solitude and immeasurable indifference, what we have is attained through our own efforts and by competing with each other. To feel gratitude for the air we breathe, for the water that takes care of our thirst, for the gifts of the sea, rivers and mountains, is simply animism. It is to attribute soul to the world, to make it divine, to re-enchant it. It is, within the paradigm in which we live, ultimately irrational. Gratitude in this context only makes sense when the gifts we receive come from another human being.
The biggest ‘projection’ we make—and that we do not see as such—is to project our mechanistic view onto the rest of the universe, as if the universe were just another one of our machines. Our fiercest denial is the one that doesn’t let us see, for example, that the thousands of millions of cells that make up the body collaborate constantly with one another and with other beings in a dance that we call life. Without that collaboration between all beings and with the universe, life is inconceivable. We have understood economics and evolution as basically competitive phenomena, without much space for collaboration and for gifts.
When we recover gratitude, we not only reinstate wonder and divinity in our universe, we also are filled with humility and companionship. Thank you for the air, for my children’s kisses, for my parents caresses. Thank you for the music of the wind, the mischievous waves, the smell of coffee, the stars that guide my dreams, for the mystery of life.