Gratitude by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonI’ve been in the midst of moving for almost a year, yet am still not finished with that onerous task.  My youngest son and family recently moved into the place I’ve called home since 1980.  I bought a small house in the vicinity and have just settled in after spending four months painting, cleaning, and hauling box after box to my new dwelling.  At the same time, I’ve been traveling back and forth to New Mexico busy with painting, cleaning, and remodeling my “retirement house.”

I’m tired.  Am also experiencing emotions that I thought I was impervious to.  I never perceived myself as somebody having an attachment to place, but a month or so before moving out of my old home, I began to feel nostalgic.  There was so much I didn’t want to leave behind–the woods, birds nesting in bushes around the property as well as on top of the front porch light, the wildlife (deer, opossum, rabbits), and neighbors far enough away so I didn’t have to hang curtains at the windows.

Just days before the agreed-upon date to turn the old home over to my son and family, I became emotionally distraught.  A friend suggested I read Oliver Sacks’ book, Gratitude.  Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was a British neurologist who spent his professional life in the United States caring for people with brain “disorders” such as aphasia, Tourette Syndrome, amnesia, autism, and a host of other neurological diagnoses.

Gratitude is a slim volume featuring four essays written during the last few months of Dr. Sacks’ life.  In the second essay, “My Own Life,” he writes: “I cannot pretend I am without fear.  But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.  I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.  I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”

I wanted to know more about Dr. Sacks’ life and promptly procured his memoir, On The Move  A Life, published just before he died in 2015.  I was struck by the apparent comfort he felt in his own skin as he went about living in the world.  He came from a fairly Orthodox Jewish family and realized during his teen years that he was gay.  When his mother discovered his homosexuality, she said, “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”  He writes that she undoubtedly was referring to a text in Leviticus (Hebrew Bible) and although she never mentioned the incident again,” …her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”

His mother’s view regarding his homosexuality didn’t seem to affect Dr. Sacks’ ability to get on with his adventures living on, what he calls, “this beautiful planet.”  He focused on his passions–medicine, literature, traveling, observing the natural world, swimming, lifting weights, and riding his motorcycle.  Along the way he met a wide variety of people (patients, colleagues, authors, and characters in books).  He squeezed gallons of nectar from those meaningful encounters.  Yet, I think his mother’s disgust regarding his sexual orientation must have cut him to the quick.  He included the incident in his last book, Gratitude.  

Recently I came across the following saying by an unknown author:  “When something bad happens, you have three choices.  You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.”  Dr. Sacks did not allow his mother’s bigotry define him, nor destroy him.  I believe he garnered strength by focusing on and developing his own interests, not giving his mother’s opinion breathing room.

Very different from the way I responded to the bigotry and disgust hurled towards my female self.  For the first two years of high school, I attended a co-ed boarding school established mainly to house missionary kids so their parents could continue working “on the field” unhindered.  Male faculty members often read Scripture passages, addressing them to the “girls,” during compulsory chapel sessions.  A favorite text was Isaiah 3:16:  “The women of Zion are haughty, walking along with outstretched necks, flirting with their eyes, strutting along with swaying hips, with ornaments jingling on their ankles.”  We “girls” were likened to the women of Zion as we behaved, according to the male faculty, flirtatiously towards the “boys” in our midst.  We were regularly admonished to “cut it out.”  The admonishment came with the warning that God would hold us responsible if any of the “boys” fell into sin on account of our wanton ways–ways that at best I could tell had everything to do with just being female.

For years I struggled, having let the bigotry of those sermons define me.  It didn’t occur to me at the time to just shuck off somebody’s construct of who I am and move forward by developing my own interests.  Why did Dr. Sacks move on with apparent ease?  Why didn’t I?  Today I understand it (at least partially) in terms of gender construction.  Somehow it’s okay, even encouraged, for men to go out into the world and make their own way.  Women stay behind and do a lot of “making nice,” accommodating and facilitating the lives of others.  It’s what I did for years.  I still struggle to find balance.

The last paragraph of Dr. Sacks’ fourth essay in Gratitude, “Sabbath,” reads: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life–achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”

I’m always amazed, and somewhat envious, when people appear to find a measure of peace as they evaluate their lives.  Perhaps being at peace within oneself stems from not having given breathing room to how others define you.  Maybe that’s why my friend recommended I read Gratitude.  Dr. Sacks drew strength as he developed and pursued interests available to him, thereby asphyxiating desire for what was not open to him, ultimately bringing him freedom and peace.  

The place I once called home is no longer available to me.  There is so much, though, that is and for that, I am grateful.

Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

20 thoughts on “Gratitude by Esther Nelson”

  1. Excellent essay. I hear so much complaining in this country today, so little gratitude. I was never very good at “making nice” and really did not care. I have come to realize this has given me a lot of freedom. I think, perhaps, I was lucky in having no brothers because my parents encouraged me to find myself and to accomplish whatever I wanted. Nevertheless, there are always those underlying gender issues. As a high school teacher, I see it every day at school. Sadly, our progress is often exceedingly slow.


    1. Thanks for your reply, Juliana, and for re-blogging. I agree with you that there are those structures in place (“institutionalized sexism”) that make it difficult for women to sort things out. As you note, you see it every day as a high school teacher! I would like to see social change regarding gender happen more quickly.


  2. Reblogged this on writingontherim and commented:
    Here in the USA I hear so much complaining even about trivia and so little gratitude. I have also come to realize that gender still defines so much, limits what girls in particular think they can accomplish; girls still try to, as this essay notes, “make nice”, often failing to accomplish all they can be. It remains remarkable and a puzzle, as this essay notes, how some people can rise above negative circumstances while it destroys others.


  3. Dear Esther, I hope there will be wildlife around your new home and that it will become your “place” in nature too. If not, maybe you need to consider moving again, now that you realize how important wildlife is to you. Was not perceiving yourself as having an attachment to place a holdover from Christian self-denial or just a product of modern capitalism’s insistence that place and home are not important as we move with the money? I know the latter is not your conscious view. As we are coming into our bodies, we also begin to realize that body does not end with the skin. We are part of the world body and though we can learn to love new places, there is something very primal about staying in a place you know and love. Good luck to you on your journey of new discoveries. And I do hope the wildlife will come to greet you in your new home. Warmly, Carol


    1. Thanks, Carol, for your lovely reply. To answer your question: I’m not sure. No doubt it’s a mixed bag. Denying the self (loaded term) is certainly a large part of my upbringing. Moving from my “old home” had a variety of reasons. Downsizing, for one. My small home in that area is on the edge of a large park next to the “mighty James river,” and I’ve noticed a variety of birds in my own back yard as well. Relocating in New Mexico is more of an unknown, however, my daughter has a house two doors down from me and I look forward to living in proximity to her sometime in the future when I’m no longer teaching at the university–whenever that happens.. New Mexico’s landscape is quite different from Virginia, but the wildlife is abundant and am looking forward to meeting all the individual creatures that call New Mexico home. The elegant Organ Mountains are stunning.


  4. Hi Esther! I have become in the habit of forwarding essays to friends and family and this one (so lovely) was sent to mom. She, pregnant, with me at 19 out of wedlock must have faced a similar shaming from her father as Dr. Sacks. She, in a sense has carried it with her all these years as well as a disdain for institutionalized religion. And yet, at 70 she is still fighting the good fight after the death of her spouse of 33 years in January and taking on a knee replacement surgery.

    I wish you all the best in your new home, resting in the joy of purely being yourself in a world that needs all of us to find ease in our bodily homes. Peace + namaste
    anita Grace


  5. Oliver Sachs is one of my heroes too. His book about having an accident while hiking far from civilization and how he managed to get to medical care is inspirational. It’s called A Leg to Stand On.


    1. Thanks, Judith. Oliver mentions his book A LEG TO STAND ON in his memoir as he recalls that whole incident of breaking his leg far from civilization. He had quite an interesting life. May have to get this book out of the library.


  6. I’m outraged reading about your boarding school experience. But thankful that you grew beyond the abuse and found your own way. It is so true: “When something bad happens, you have three choices. You can let it define you, let it destroy you, or you can let it strengthen you.” Making the choice can restore our selves, our dignity, our independence and strength.

    I’m glad family is moving into your old home as you move into a new one. I’m sure you will find much pleasure in the new place as you make it your own and discover the richness around you and within you.


    1. PS the fact that your son and his family want to move into the old house says a lot about the kind of home you made there. It must have been a place of love.


    2. Thanks, Barbara. Unfortunately, the kind of experience I had in boarding school still happens in many faith traditions. When I lived through the experience, it all seemed so normal. Takes a while to learn to love oneself after that toxic ideology takes root.


  7. Thank you, Esther, for reminding me to be grateful. I recently moved 3000 miles across the country to the wonderful city of Portland, Oregon, but while I enjoy this amazing place, I often feel nostalgic for the familiarity of the east coast. Oliver Sacks was a wonderful man and writer. You have inspired me to read more of his work, and to reach beyond the old “ties that bind.”


    1. So well put, Katharine! It makes me glad that I’m not moving to New Mexico “all of a sudden.” My plan is to have a foot in both “new” places–Las Cruces, NM, and Richmond, Va.–at least for a while. Thank you for your kind words.


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