Tuesday, August 04, 2009

`The Almost Invisible Ordinary'

Ah, a week of Cub Scout day camp, when a father and his sons commune with nature and observe the timeless ritual of mosquitoes, dehydration and heat rash. Every day, from 1 to 7 p.m., we move from station to station – first aid, arts ‘n’ crafts, woodworking, archery, the BB-gun range. I conducted the nature scavenger hunt: “Mr. Kurp, is this moss or lichen?” The book that accompanied me and offered periodic solace was The Gift of Thanks (HarperCollins, 2008) by an English writer new to me, Margaret Visser. She examines gratitude as social lubricant, moral philosophy and spiritual bedrock. Visser achieves an unlikely and very English-sounding tone of learned but unpretentious chattiness. Her introduction begins:

“Nothing orders our lives so smoothly and so subtly as the almost invisible ordinary. The simple habit of saying `thank you,’ and the notion of gratitude that underlies it, can be a key to understanding many of basic assumptions, preferences, and needs of Western culture…We often express dismay at an apparent drop in the `standards’ of gratitude in society as a whole (people have always tended to complain that gratitude seems to be dying out). But it continues to be a common virtue; otherwise, our society would show far worse signs of disintegration.”

I was tempted to complain about the near-extinction of gratitude (Traherne called it “a symptom of a happy life”) as exemplified by whining, sorely aggrieved Cub Scouts and some of their parents – but that seems needlessly ungrateful of me. I had a good, exhausting time, and Visser reminds me:

“Ingratitude….is disregard – paying no attention and so slighting – and disrespect. It rejects, disparages, or ignores gifts and favours. More importantly, it rejects the person giving them. It can also despise and reject what has come to us from the past: social arrangements, moral beliefs and attitudes, and artistic and other concrete achievements.”

Visser serves as a corrective to my slide toward self-righteousness, and her book is hefty enough (458 pages) to serve as an excellent press for leaves and wildflowers. Traherne again, from Centuries of Meditation:

“By the very right of your senses you enjoy the World. Is not the beauty of the Hemisphere present to your eye? Doth not the glory of the Sun pay tribute to your sight? Is not the vision of the World an amiable thing?”


D. G. Myers said...

Austen believed that gratitude was sufficient reason to marry.

Ian Woolcott said...

Thank you, Mr Kurp.

Anthony said...

How exciting to have a new book from Margaret Visser. Her The Rituals of Dinner spent five years as a bedside book and I never tired of rereading its essays.