Marguerite and I have stood as witnesses to each other's journey for 35 years. The intimacy of marriage has shaped us and also given us the capacity to see with compassion each other's ambitions, hopes, fears, and failures. We've been both our best selves, and our worst selves in each other's presence. We've learned to accept and accommodate our differences, and we've also grown in our shared faith and values. We often challenge each other to be better people.
The attention of a loving and supportive observer animates our daily lives and creates a nurturing setting out of which we function. This is made up of little, often unacknowledged, unmerited, and undeserved acts of kindness: the clean and folded laundry, the topped-up gas tank in the other's car, a home repair, a bed made, the picture or the rug that beautifies our shared space, the trash collected and placed at the curb. It's the time taken to mail a letter, or pay the bills, or get groceries. It's attention to things the other may never notice: replacing the smoke detector batteries, buying the back-up pound of coffee, removing the nasty coffee cup ignored for days and growing fur, preparing and serving a gracious meal.
We live in a consumer culture that bombards us with the message that whatever we have is not enough. It's aimed at making us want more, bigger, better, easier, faster, newer, prettier, " etc. The focus on want eclipses true need and spills over as an attitude. We acquire appetites that satisfy no hunger. One example is the over sexualization of youth. Our consumer society uses powerful psychological tools to market sexualized apparel, music, and makeup. It makes celebrities of those who are icons of these products. It makes kids want to buy things to emulate the look and styles they see promoted without gaining the sense of intimacy and caring they crave.
One can't find nurture and inner peace through acquiring "things." Possessions don't produce the sort of witness to our lives that I'm writing about here. Consequently, it's easy to get sidetracked from what really matters and actually does give satisfaction and peace.
In the end it is relationship that counts. In many ways my relationship to Marguerite and hers to me sustains and energizes us in the way that mystics suggest God's love operates. Perhaps the role of loving relationships in a person's life is to provide the windows through which God's love illuminates us. However it works, we have discovered that an antidote to our cultural norm of dissatisfaction is to cultivate gratitude. We give thanks to God for our blessings, and we make a habit of thanking each other for those little acts of support. "Thanks for doing the dishes." "Thanks for taking out the trash." We strive to notice them -- to be faithful witnesses to each other's goodness.
David Stiendl Rast suggests that we are enriched by appreciating the great-fullness of our lives." As a monk, he expresses his gratitude in prayer and in his interactions with others. St. Benedict admonished his followers to receive one-another as the Christ. In a similar sentiment, the Quakers declare that there is that of God in each of us. One could say that acknowledging with gratitude the presence of another in our life is an act of prayer.
I recently spent a month living in about 200 square feet of space that constitutes our motor home. That tiny cabin provided shelter, bed, bath, kitchen, and a table and a couch -- all the essential comforts and more. It was parked at a marina in Key West and I was by myself with no commitments to others. I was free to read, write, loaf in the balmy air, eat fresh fish caught nearby, sleep late, and generally do what I pleased. Those around me were strangers.
I met people whose entire store of worldly possessions was enclosed in a similar space. They came from many places forsaking more complicated lives where lots of "stuff" surrounded them. But they regarded the simple Keys island life as "paradise." I was reminded that what is essential to happiness is really very little if you have health, enough to eat, comfortable clothes, and caring friends. Life doesn't go on forever. It is so very important to keep one's inner and outer space uncluttered.
Gratitude for what sustains me is the font of my happiness in a troubled and materialistic world. Sharing gratitude for life with a witness makes a celebration out of the commonplace and imparts joy to the simplest things.