When we wake in the morning, what is our first thought? It’s Monday, and we’re late, so we spring up, the to-do list already firmly in our minds before we hit the shower. But there is already much here that should surprise us. The fact that we have emerged from a state of consciousness that is pretty much as good as being dead for all our minds can tell, that we are alive again; that (for most of us) we have legs to get us to the bathroom; that (for most of us) we in fact have a bathroom. These are things that we take for granted, that we take as a given. Yet these pieces of everyday language suggest that deep down we know that we possess something we did not earn: health, the mental capacity to earn our living, existence itself.
Do we believe that existence is a good? This may not be a given for some, and is therefore no cause for gratitude. But if it is – what is the proper response to a gift? A thank you letter, if you ask my mother. To whom do we address the letter? To our parents? They did not will us, they just willed a baby and then accepted us; or they may have accepted us without willing a baby. And yet pregnancy is inconvenient, and the slightest inconvenience or whim is ideologically claimed as a just reason for pregnancy termination, of which we can all, possibly, be grateful that we are survivors. It is truly a miracle that we are alive.
So if we cannot be grateful for existence, there are at least grounds to be grateful for our mothers’ acceptance, that she was willing to carry us to term and nourish us with her own body. If not our conception, then our birth is grounds for gratitude to our parents, and also to our grandparents. The egg that half-made me was formed and nourished, along with the rest of my mother’s cells, inside my grandmother’s body.
Then what of the circumstances of our birth? Identity politics casts us as minds chained to the circumstances ‘assigned’ to us at birth, from which we struggle to be liberated. Yet a baby has DNA that proclaims its sex (for example) before it has brain cells to support the mind that may subsequently declare itself independent of its genes. So for example, with our minds consequent upon (or at least dependent upon) our bodies, it cannot but be true that the mind of a male body who experiences the world through male media must in some ways be different from the mind of a female body.
It is my body that gets me from A to B, that provides the conditions for me to experience natural beauty, and I did not create my body myself, so I must be grateful for it, as for other physical realities: for the unexpected fact that I wake up every day, still here and still myself, that I still have the use of my legs, that I do not wake up to the sound of shells hitting the apartment block next door.
Even the worst of disadvantaged conditions provides us with something rather than nothing; even an eked out piece of love, even an inadequate meal, even a house without central heating.
So there is very little that is not given to us, from our bodies to the conditions of our upbringing. Language, culture, education are not things we obtain for ourselves. They, and the little white spring flowers that scatter their confetti at the slightest breeze, all seem the product of what I want to call abundant gratuity – something given for free – like that of my mother any time I go home (tea? cake? dinner? pudding? every other minute), or indeed that of the father who slaughters the fatted calf when his prodigal son returns.
We must be aware of the continued given-ness of our existence.
Gratuity seems to be built into the world to remind us to pay it forward ourselves through love and creativity. Did I NEED to have three siblings? No. Do I love them? Yes. Did that tree need so many flowers, did that rose need so many petals, did that painting need quite that number of brushstrokes, did that building need so many columns?
Of course not. Gratuity is the opposite of optimisation and necessity. Gratuity has no use, it’s for its own sake. Love, children, art, art within art.
Nature seems over-abundant or gratuitous, but is it? Is there a biological imperative behind that one extra flower, are the sunset colours chemically necessary? Maybe overproduction increases our chances of survival, but you would think by now a tree might have evolved to produce the optimum amount of flowers, self-regulating to conserve resources and reduce waste. Or maybe this is the optimum amount, but it’s too much for my eyes to comprehend at once, I can only contemplate. Then is it just my optimism, or my privilege – the fact that I have been given so much – that allows me to see the world as ultimately benign? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the night sky is a void full of other suns, or a bowl set over the flat earth, as it sometimes appears. Perhaps what matters is that we are grateful for it, for what we have.
So it’s not true that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. There is a feast set before us every day, we have only to sit down at the table.