Existential gratitude

43

Dear Artist,

After all these years, within the striving and plodding of art and amongst the drop-kicks of New York and the patient song of our resident California Western Mockingbird, I’ve come to understand that happiness and gratitude are so intertwined that one perhaps does not even exist without the other. I feel this way when I look at my husband. In this moment, I feel this way when I try to grasp the scope of my parents’ love, and their individual greatness. This week, I am coming to terms with a new idea: that the law of life is that we must live part of ours without the physical presence of those most important. Accepting this law has activated a new search for meaning. While the sadness beds down, there is also a feeling of quiet and abiding gratefulness. I am even grateful for my sadness. And if I am grateful for my sadness, and if gratitude and happiness are intertwined, then I am also happy.

La danse (second version), 1909-1910 Oil on canvas, 260 x 391 cm by Henri Matisse

La Danse (second version), 1909-1910
Oil on canvas,
260 x 391 cm
by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

In this week’s Atlantic, cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has differentiated the miracle of gratitude from what the culture has recently deemed, “toxic positivity.” Instead of minimizing our response to difficulty, “tragic optimism,” says Kaufman, searches for opportunities for growth amidst life’s inevitable tragedies. First coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “tragic optimism” is the practice of processing adverse events by peering into the darkness. Apparently, it’s an excellent location for finding routes to gratitude.

The dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908 Oil on canvas 70.9 in × 86.6 inches by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

The Dessert: Harmony in Red, 1908
Oil on canvas
180 × 220 cm
by Henri Matisse

It turns out that gratitude inspired by adversity can and will, in fact, rewire us for a permanent uptick in happiness. The more the difficulty, the greater the potential for deeper and lasting joy. To this end, cancer survivor Kristi Nelson, who now runs the Network for Grateful Living, has made a point of distinguishing between gratitude and gratefulness. Gratitude, says Nelson, is a momentary feeling, whereas gratefulness can be understood as an “overall orientation” that is “not contingent on something happening to us, but rather a way that we arrive to life.” For sensitive ones, for those who struggle alone, for
those experiencing pervasive setbacks, for dreamers, for artists, this orientation could simply become a default setting. That dig we’ve all dodged; “delusion,” — extracted from the Latin ludere, meaning “to play,” — could accidentally backfire; and concoct an orientation that, when channelled with real work and inquiry, results in the most true and productive of expressions, spanning the widest breadth of both exaltant and tragic human experience. “Grief,” wrote John Green, “does not change you. It reveals you.”

Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-1906 Oil on canvas 176.5 x 240.7 cm by Henri Matisse

Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-1906
Oil on canvas
176.5 x 240.7 cm
by Henri Matisse

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, ‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’ ‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered, ‘and you’ve ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it’s a blessing?’” (Rumi)

Esoterica: Critics argue that a practice of gratitude is nothing more than a tool for narcissistic self-improvement, and that a reverence for a superpower beyond our own cognitive leanings is necessary for any meaningful spiritual well-being. But research has shown that the more grateful people feel, the more inclined they are to help others, and that less attachment to dogma inspires a deeper empathy and generosity towards others. “True gratefulness rejoices in the other. Its ultimate goal is to reflect back the goodness that one has received by creatively seeking opportunities for giving,” wrote psychoanalyst Robin Stern of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. This “existential gratitude” is now being measured on the “Existential Gratitude Scale,” created by gratitude researcher Lilian Jans-Beken and existential positive psychologist Paul Wong. Designed to measure our inclination towards gratitude for every experience, as opposed to just the positive ones, the EGS can provide a snapshot of our overall spiritual health as it relates to suffering and resilience, responding to difficult people and finding purpose. “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth,” wrote Professor Robert Emmons. “Life is a privilege, and those of us who choose the path of creativity, may just be the most privileged of all. We all have our unique motivations. In all the cults and orthodoxies, and in the absence of them, simple gratefulness need not be overlooked. For some, the mere gift of a new day may be enough.” (Robert Genn)

Open Window, Collioure, 1905 Oil on canvas 55.3 x 46 cm by Henri Matisse

Open Window, Collioure, 1905
Oil on canvas
55.3 x 46 cm
by Henri Matisse

It is with my sincerest gratitude that I thank each and every one of you for your words of condolence for the loss of my Mother, Carol Noriko Genn. My family is humbled and deeply comforted by your kindness. With gratitude and friendship, Sara. 

 

“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (William Butler Yeats)


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43 Comments

  1. Hello, I find this to be one of your most meaningful letters for me. As my last daughter leaves our nest with dreams of an acting career, I want her to remember these words and keep them in thought as times get tough. An artist myself, I totally understand and appreciate gratitude and gratefulness, especially since losing my mother. I feel your loss and grieve with you, you are among the luckiest on earth because of her. Thank you for your words and bless you.

  2. Sara, Thank you for continuing Robert’s tradition of this newsletter, and for so fully sharing your mind and life with us. We are so thankful for you and the heritage of strong values that your parents handed up to you, and that you carry forth.

  3. Patricia D Tatlow on

    My deepest condolences to you and your family, dear Sara. Your thoughtful letters reflect the beauty that your parents inspire in you. I am grateful for your gifts and theirs. ❤

    • Dear Sara, my sincere condolences on the loss of your mother. You are strong and will find that nothing real can ever be lost. Love to you and your family. Many thanks for the wonderful letters.
      Hennie

    • Stephanie Young on

      I lost my mom in March. She was 94 1/2 years old and had lived with my husband and I for 10 years. I have struggled with her loss and have found grand support through a local grief group.
      This article is a must share to my family and my grief folks. Thank you for the thoughtful words.
      My sympathies and best wishes to you, Sara, as you follow the journey grief takes you.

  4. I found this newsletter full of tender wisdom. I had long enjoyed your father’s writing ,Sara, and yours is his wonderful legacy. I share your sorrow at the loss of your mom, having lost my own. I extend my deepest condolences. Thank you for continuing to share with us all in spite of this sad time in your life. You are inspiring.

  5. You have grasped what live is all about , the more trial and tribulations we come through the stronger we can become. Happiness is something is we have to earn to truly appreciate it.

  6. I would like you to know that many of us wept with you for the loss of your wonderful mother. It is such a privilege to read your and your father’s letters. Now we know how much your mother’s spirit contributed as well, even though she didn’t write to us. Your letters connect us to a much broader spectrum of art ideas and thoughts and directions. thank you. And please accept my sincere condolences, with the understanding that many send them even if they don’t write.

  7. My deepest condolence for the loss of your beloved mother. Mothers are so precious and feeling more so when we lost them. I lost my mom to cancer back in 2017 and still missed her every day. Your wisdom and strength to continue on the newsletter and speak a voice for many artists is itself an inspiration to us that we should be so grateful for… Thank you, Sera for sharing your new idea of the law of life…

  8. Sarah,

    That was a wonderful letter, and my sincere condolences on the loss of your mother. My own flew the planet on a blustery April day in 2018, with a white-throated sparrow calling and calling. I was just thinking of her love of trees, looking at the ones around me through her eyes.

    I am reading a book about the lineage of ceremonial practices of ‘dying before dying.’ A book about the roots of the Christian eucharist tradition in Greek Dionysian ceremonial practices, and in the Eleusian ceremonies linked to Persephone and Demeter, and back to the Egyptians. It brings an interesting depth to the ideas of gratefulness, of living as humans with a root understanding of connectedness.

  9. So very sorry for the deep loss of your mother. She and your father live on in you and bless me and many creatives each week with your postings. We are so grateful for you and share in your sorrow at this time and in the days ahead. Blessings and gratitude, Suzanne

  10. Sara,
    My condolences to you and your family on the loss of your mother. Thank you for so generously sharing your journey, I find it poignant and comforting, even though it has been many years since I lost at parent. Something I love about your writing is the research into other disciplines to find expression and new avenues for your ideas. In gratitude, Kristen.

  11. L. Anderson Stewart on

    Your sorrow is palpable to me as I am on death watch for my only brother . His grave illness came much too soon in a world where we seem to believe we can all live forever? What it has done is force me to think long and hard about how I see the act of living. Living in the moment ,along with gratitude, has also become a mantra for many. I tend generally to shun formulas , there are no one size fits all remedies for lifes bumps. But I do have one thought. Without sadness there would be no evidence that we have loved? Embrace your sadness. It is an important emotion.

  12. Sara. I’m grateful that we had a chance to know your family. I think of your parents often, and can imagine your dad telling amazing stories to the grandkids. I’m sure they hear those whispers in their dreams – lucky kids!

  13. Your words rang a truth in me. This grief has to mean something, to do something to bring me to a different place. Except for my children, most of the people I have loved in my life are now gone. Am I learning how to be different. I don’t know except I felt something very moving reading your words. God bless you and your family at this difficult time. I recently lost my husband and join you in this journey to another place.

  14. My father – who never, ever got sick – once got a very bad cold/flu/whatever. When I called him to chat, I was shocked and said, “Daddy, I wonder why you got sick?” His answer, “I know exactly why I got sick… I had a momentary lapse in my gratefulness, and I got sick.” Luckily both of my parents understood this concept and I have lived with eternal gratefulness for having them as my parents. It sounds to me, Sara, that you feel the same way about your parents. We were blessed.

  15. Thankyou, Sara for your wonderful letter today. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your dear Mother. I’ve heard tat if you say her name out loud every day, she will hear you. My Mom left this world in 1999, but I feel her presence ; I have plants in our yard in Florida from her yard in Georgia and they remind me of how much she loved to Garden.
    On another note, I have a dear, much younger friend.. younger than our grown daughters, who has Pancreatic cancer like your dear father, Robert Glenn. She is awaiting surgery but I am really worried about her and think maybe she is getting false hopes, but I try to cheer her on. She is an artist, and had just built a new home with a wonderful studio; she is spunky and tries to be positive. What else can I do to help her since you have faced such a challenge?

  16. I too had wonderful, creative and supportive parents. I was/am so lucky and grateful. You have given me a new way of processing that grief which still visits me from time to time even after 30 years. Thank you.

  17. My sincere condolences Sara at the death of your mother.
    No one loves us like our mothers. May you continue to find the beauty and gratitude around you. You had two loving parents who taught you to experience life with your heart and soul.

  18. Thank you for reminding me of Victor Frankl’s wisdom. As he peered into the darkness in later years, his wife was his light. “Tragic optimism” can help us to reach into our soul and continue the journey to the light in spite of the grief, the pain and the knowing of aloneness. We can move from victims to survivors with the courage to search through the darkness for the light. Thank you for sharing your vulnerability and sadness.

  19. Your collected comments validate and give voice to a tone that I have found it necessary to live in. I refer to it as my “attitude of gratitude” and is the key for the concert of life. I facilitate “Draw 4 Joy” sessions as a celebration that is open to all. Thank you and your parents for the words and images that validate and communicate my understanding as a common human experience.

  20. “Life is a privilege, and those of us who choose the path of creativity, may just be the most privileged of all. We all have our unique motivations. In all the cults and orthodoxies, and in the absence of them, simple gratefulness need not be overlooked. For some, the mere gift of a new day may be enough.” (Robert Genn) Love that. What an inspiring letter of hope and deep understanding of what living is supposed to be about. With the glut of internet profundity on attitude of gratitude, I once found myself saying ” ya ya ya” when reading quotes inundating my Fb thread way back in the day when I played along. The joy of gratitude isn’t something we learn to achieve. It’s something we learn to accept when it hits us, unbridled and pure, without guilt, we are allowed to be grateful for joy. Thank you, Sara!

  21. Dear Sarah,
    May you be wrapped in warm loving arms and memories. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, your heart. Much to consider and reflect on. Thank you for a deep reminder of choosing and living in gratefulness in all situations.
    Blessings!
    Valerie

  22. Gratitude has been the air in my lungs when I couldn’t breathe through the pain. I could resonate on every word you’ve written here Sara. Its been a life line and total game changer for me. My early years were very dark and painful. As an adult I struggled to even see the joys in my life and they were there. They were always there. I know it sounds a bit nutty but sincerely; I’m deeply grateful for those dark time’s in my early life. What gifts they were, what learnings came from that time. I would not of coped through the loss of my parents without two things: gratitude and my husband. Which ever way your journey leads you Sara, may you find the light in the broken parts of yourself as you grieve this loss. Condolences to you and your family. For what its worth, grateful for your ever inspirational words and courage to share with us all.

  23. Thank you for such a profound letter. It gives me much to think about, as I have experienced a few losses in the past few years that knocked me down. I am so sorry for the loss of your Mom. I still have mine ( and my Dad) but I know what’s coming. I cherish every moment with them

    Art is a wonderful way to cope with all the sorrow this world throws at us.

  24. Dear Sara, Please accept my sincere condolences on the loss of your mother. I am so sorry, yet we all have to go through this bittersweet event, it seems. Mine has been gone 8 years, and we communicate with each other while I paint or walk or garden. And yes, of course, I miss her every day. Hang in there, and thank you for all your beautiful writings , and also for sharing your dad’s newsletters, too.
    <3 Julie

  25. Sara, sending my sincere sympathy to you on the loss of your mother.
    No doubt, both she and your father instilled in you your senses of gratitude, and gratefulness, with or without grief. Your letters inspire so much more than art inspiration, and I am so glad that you generously continue them. Thank you.

  26. Thank you for this article. I have also lost my mother a few years ago. Since I am adopted the grieving seemed to go on along with feelings of being orphaned. I have come around to feeling so very grateful and lucky for having such good, caring parents especially when it could have been so different. Now that my husband has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer I am grateful for your timely article.

  27. Like so many others here, I am so grateful for this particular letter at this particular time in my life. It speaks to me directly in a profound way. Thank you, Sara.

    I was not aware that your mother had died. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  28. “Man’s fate is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” “Yet men cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better than for men to be happy and do good while they live. That every man may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in his toil -this is the gift of God” “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hands.” So the gift from God is to be able to accept his lot because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart but when he dies God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stanger enjoys them instead. Even if he lives for a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity . Do not all go to the same place? God only asks us to be truthful and righteous yet we find all kinds of exceptions for doing what is opposite. When times are good be happy, but when times are bad, consider; God has made the one as well as the other . Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes. Because to fear God is to hate evil. May God Bless you my friend. The greatest joy is the knowledge from the bible the only advice from God you’ll ever need. Knowledge is understanding. Understanding is wisdom. Wisdom is the knowledge about the ways of God not the ways of this world.

  29. Sara, this is one of the most beautiful letters you have posted. So poignant. No one loves us like mothers but your connection to both of your parents is beautiful and obvious. Thank you for sharing. – Michelle Miller

  30. Luisa Wohlgroth on

    Thank you dear Sara for your wonderful letters, I read each and every one each week and they boost me as I go along, trying to paint and be happy. I’m so sorry for your great loss, but know that yourmother is now happy in heaven, together with your father. You were blessed to have had such good parents . I think it’s wonderful the way you remember them and honor them.
    All the best to you and know that you’re in our prayers.
    Luisa

  31. How appropriate a timing for me to read this letter, Thankyou. I am sad to hear of your mom’s passing. Take good care of yourself -Eric

  32. Sara,

    I just read this wonderful letter and found out about the loss of your amazing mother! I was very sad to hear of her passing. I know how hard it can be to lose your mom, … memories and family do help immensely.

    Thanks so very much for all the beautiful letters that you write, following in your father’s footsteps!

    Take care! Lynn

  33. Hello Sara,
    I want to join the others in expressing my condolences at the loss of your mother. You were so fortunate to have such loving parents. Your letter expresses so well the environment in which you grew. I am myself grieving the death of dear artist friend. I feel pretty close to what you are going through. I once expressed in a letter to your father that my painting was a form of praying, of connecting to a greater power. I still feel that way.
    Take good care, Mary Jean

  34. Sara,
    Truly one of the most profound letters that you have written. Your love and understanding of your parents and the grief you feel now in your Mothers loss are palpable. I found this letter to be very comforting and will read it many times on future dark days. I recently lost my husband to Covid related issues. It was sudden and fast. I find myself
    simply overwhelmed with his loss on many days , although it is now 8 months. My art is my saving grace and I am able to express some of my feelings in my work. I am fortunate to have this gift to help me. I am grateful for my children who are so understanding and supportive. I am working hard to move on and adapt to a new normal.
    Thank you for sharing your very deep and personal thoughts with all of us. I wish you peace.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Evening-Flight-24-x-18-OC-wpcf_300x300.jpgEvening Flight
oil on canvas
24 x 18 inches

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Essentially I am representational painter, with a real appreciation for the design aspects of abstract art.  By emphasizing strong shape relationships and connecting bands of textural color, I am able to paint the natural world in two dimensional patterns while striving to create interesting three dimensional compositions.  Andrew Wyeth, a realist who has influenced my work, painted very abstract watercolors that helped him explore the possibilities for unusual compositions.  Like him, I value the drama of a strong composition, solid drawing, complex textures, and sumptuous, rich color while attempting to ground the painting’s design in essential, free form shapes.  Past Masters who have shaped my artistic direction are: Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Richard Diebenkorn, and the California impressionists. Richard Schmid is a contemporary painter whose instruction has contributed greatly to my ability to capture the light, intimacy, and subtle textures of the hidden landscapes.
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