Written by Head of Upper School, Michele Bett
With our Thanksgiving break rapidly approaching, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect upon why we should give thanks. In this “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” in the words of English poet John Keats, ripened fruits and swollen gourds signal that the wondrous bounty of mother nature’s harvest has arrived. And yes, we have much for which to give thanks.
We give thanks that at Ridley:
our teachers have high expectations of their students;
our students come to school ready to be stretched and challenged;
our teachers support and scaffold curiosity in their classrooms daily;
our students are inherently curious and motivated learners;
our teachers arrange their learning opportunities, carving out space for imagination, wonder and reflection; and
our students flourish when they find passion and relevance in their studies.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk writes on the power of gratefulness. He encourages us to see each new day as a gift where the only appropriate response is gratitude. He urges us to open our hearts to all our blessings.
It is quite radical to see each new day as a gift. If you were caught thanking the sun for rising each morning, people might wonder about your sanity. Normal people don’t go around being grateful all the time. But why not?
I believe that it behooves us to show respect for – and be grateful to – nature, other people, and the past.
We have all stood transfixed and filled with awe in the presence of nature’s marvels – Niagara Falls is an obvious and near-by example. At moments like that, it is not hard to feel a sense of gratitude and to think to ourselves, “what a wonderful world!” The feeling is probably like that of a child playing in the garden. The difference is that, unlike us, the child does not need a raging cascade to get her attention. Here is how John Keats’ older contemporary William Wordsworth put it:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
The poet goes on to say that this time is gone: “The things which I have seen I now can see no more.” And yet, despite our obliviousness and routine and normalcy, nature does not stop being the miracle that it is. As a later 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins put it: “And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Even in this time of climate change and global warming, an appreciation for the blessings of life on this earth is still the right way to respond. In fact, I wonder if things might be different on our planet if more people felt more grateful to nature.
At Ridley, we frequently emphasize the importance of thanking each other as often as we can. By doing so, we are recognizing the worth and significance of other people. It turns out that admitting the reality of what is outside ourselves is a necessary step toward well-being. Furthermore, by thanking others, we are acknowledging the other’s presence as a gift. We are saying to the other: “You have given me something that I did not deserve; you have been to me more than a friend.” What almost inevitably comes next is: “I will do the same for you when I can. I will try to be a gift to you.” It is a virtuous circle that fosters and celebrates loving relationships.
Being thankful for the past might seem somewhat strange, even suspicious; some of us might feel much more inclined to reject the past in our struggle for a better world. But human civilizations and cultures throughout all time have universally honoured those who have lived and died in earlier times. Similarly, our society commemorates heroes and martyrs and wise people who have done or said things that remain meaningful to us today. One of those we remember is Martin Frobisher, who in 1578 arrived in Canada and held a formal ceremony in which he gave thanks for surviving the long voyage from England. (Some 43 years later, the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts and did something similar.) This nation began by opening its heart in gratitude to the blessings of life.
And that’s why I am so grateful to be part of a community that has opened its heart to all its blessings. Every student in our community is a blessing, and regardless of their academic trajectory, they are cared for and valued. They are loved.
As in so many of my chapel talks and conversations with parents and students it is the character strength of love that I find myself returning to so often. Love, it seems, underpins nearly everything we do at Ridley.
In the gospels, God tells who we are, and we know that it can be the hardest thing in the world for us to receive love, especially the love of God. Whether you are a Christian, Moslem, Jew, Buddhist, non-believer, let’s be united in the idea that love is the strongest thing in the world, and to receive it demands that we begin by loving ourselves.
Unlike the bees in Keats’ ode to “Autumn,” we know that these warm October days will cease, but giving thanks at Ridley is not limited to the season of thanksgiving. At Ridley, we practice gratitude daily, all year round. May I wish all our families at Ridley a Thanksgiving break filled with joy, appreciation and, of course, much love.