by Carol S. Hyman
With no family nearby, this year we’ll be spending Thanksgiving with friends, sharing the cooking. Our host will cook the turkey. I said I’d bring dressing and deviled eggs, and offered to make the gravy just before the meal. “Oh, would you?” My friend was pleased. “That’s always so tricky.” She’s not the first person I’ve heard say something like that. It started a train of thought that led me to contemplate grace.
Grace and gratitude share a Latin root, gratus, meaning pleasing. But in life we can count on some things being unpleasant. And every generation may think so, but these seem like such tumultuous times that I wonder how we might muster the civility to build a harmonious society.
Imagine if we could somehow catalyze a movement toward principled compromise. Toward respectful dialogue. Toward appreciating what we have in common. We might actually invoke a state of grace on the state of our nation. And even our world. That truly would be amazing grace and something to be thankful for indeed.
Pondering, I realize what grace and gravy have in common: a recipe can only take you so far. Even if you gather the right components and create the conditions conducive to your desired result, an excellent outcome will still depend on a little luck. Or magic. With that in mind, though I can’t offer a fool-proof recipe, here’s at least a partial ingredient list that might, if you’re persistent and lucky, invite grace to your table.
Grace before meals expresses gratitude, of course, but perhaps even more importantly, it expresses humility. It’s an acknowledgement of all that we can’t control, of appreciation for what we’ve been given, and of aspiration for what we would like to have. But modestly, gently; grace is not rude, crude, or overbearing. It’s humble and kind, it keeps its elbows off the table, it joins hands with its neighbor.
The more solidly we hold onto to our opinions and complaints, the harder it is for grace to find us. The ability to identify when we’re caught up — in self-importance and certainty that we’re right — arises from training our minds. To drop all of that calls for a surrender of our habitual patterns. Mindfulness practice helps us develop the ability to get out of our own way.
We all know the sarcastic expression — So happy you decided to grace us with your presence! — but some people really do bestow grace with their presence. I have a friend who unfailingly tries to find the best in people, even those with whom she disagrees. Her kindness is palpable. It elicits from others a willingness to be more open, to share who they are. This skill is especially valuable in contentious times because the more we share our aspirations and admit our fears, the more likely we are to discover how much we have in common.
Being open works both ways. It calls for mindful listening. Really listening. Not to the news channels that channel our opinions right back at us, but to our neighbors. Our co-workers. The people who fix our cars or ring up our purchases. We can cultivate the attitude that there’s no need to be constantly espousing our own point of view quite so vigorously. We can afford to actually pay attention to what others say. It also calls for care in what we say, speaking the truth as we see it, but without aggression. Mindful communication is key to creating community; a healthy community is one that accommodates differences. We can treat one another as if we realize that we’re all on the ride of our lives, common travelers on spaceship earth.
Grace loves to dance with grit, which is what it takes to make a difficult task look easy. Beautiful, even. At the ballet, we don’t look at the dancers and think about their aches and blisters; we don’t see years of hard work. We see a pin-point pirouette, the arc of an arabesque. Grit doesn’t step into grace’s spotlight, but you can count on it being behind the scenes.
Last November, in a post called “Gritty Gratitude,” I wrote about how to appreciate things that aren’t easy for us. It takes grit to be grateful for those who annoy or infuriate us. Some races from last week’s election are still uncertain but one thing is sure: nobody was happy with the outcome of all the races. If our favored candidates didn’t win, we may not feel like being civil. But demonizing or wishing away fellow citizens with whom we disagree merely fills our minds, our media, and our society with more turbulence.
So how can we summon the grit to meet with grace what doesn’t please us?
We can learn to come back. We can stop, for a moment, the constant chatter in our heads and drop into our bodies. We can feel what it feels like to be alive, right here, right now. Athletes display grace in action when they are in the zone; instead of being caught up in thinking about what they’re doing, they are fully immersed in the ongoing flow of the game.
People who exhibit grace under pressure, who set aside personal agendas and reactivity to respond skillfully in crisis, are always the greatest natural resource on the planet. And that is a resource that we have the power to renew. Resting in presence, we find a kind of clarity and the ability to act skillfully that arises from the final, and most essential, element inviting grace:
How in the world do we create space? First, we can try creating a little space in our own minds. Regular mindfulness practice can help, but even if we aren’t able to dedicate time and space to formal meditation practice, we can develop the intention to notice when we’re caught up reacting to things we don’t like. Then we can use that noticing as a cue to take a breath. Taking a conscious breath creates space.
Think about having a heated argument. If you keep blurting out whatever comes to mind, things tend to escalate. But if you take a moment and take a breath, you create space in which you might notice something. Maybe your anger is masking fear. And if you really look at the person you’re arguing with, you might see the possibility that their anger is also rooted in fear. At that point, acknowledging fear in the conversation could transform an argument into a moment of connection. Even if you agree to disagree.
Focusing on what unites rather than what divides us takes grace and more than a modicum of equanimity, qualities that are easier to come by when we aren’t caught up in habitual mental busyness. Underneath the perpetual and often turbulent bumper-to-bumper thinking that’s normal for most of us lies the space of wakeful presence. Mindfulness practice helps us experience that space. And space brings grace.
Whether we think of grace as a gift from God, the universe, or ourselves, we have to be open to receive it; if we’re full of ourselves, there’s no space for anything to come in. If, instead, we open to the space of our own wakeful presence, we just might find we’re the vehicles to be our own saving grace. As for making great gravy, good luck!