Gratitude and the precariousness of life


When we read in the Book of Genesis that God is demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, we are rightly incredulous.  Are you kidding me?  This is Isaac, the late-born son of Abraham and Sarah, the child of the promise.  The killing of Isaac can only mean going back on God’s promise, insofar as the promise is inextricably tied to the act of generation.  How can God require something that directly contradicts his plan for the re-generation of his people?  As this terrible scene unfolds, with Abraham slowly ascending Mount Moriah with his son – wood for the fire and knife in hand – the human sacrifice is averted at the last moment, and the radical substance of Abraham’s faith is both revealed and rewarded.   He receives back his son.

For the purposes of this reflection, my particular interest in this scene is how Abraham received back his son.  What difference did this act of surrender make in how he now looks at Isaac?  The circumstances of Isaac’s birth underlined how much of a wondrous gift he was.  The testing, Abraham’s willingness to let go of his beloved son, aims at teaching him, lest he lapse into forgetfulness, the precariousness and the preciousness of this gift.  Precarious and precious, these belong together and together they move toward love and gratitude.  Think of those first flowering trees in the spring, whose beauty is so captivating and yet so brief.  Is it possible that this beauty, or at least our appreciation of it, is related to its coming and going?  Here today and gone tomorrow, a blessed appearance of beauty that comes without cost and without any effort on our part.

This reminds me of an essay by Leon Kass, in which he addresses this question: supposing that modern science will eventually have within its power to indefinitely prolong human life: should we?   After enumerating a host of socio-economic issues that would result, Kass eventually zeroes in on the more properly human considerations.  Two aspects of our mortality come into view.  One makes reference to the prayer of the psalmist (Psalm 90:12) that we may gain wisdom of heart by a lived awareness of the shortness of our days.  A modicum of self-knowledge tells us that “having all the time in the world” is not usually a recipe for concerted effort and human excellence.  A related consideration has to do with the acquisition of virtue, which by its nature calls forth from us the willingness to rise above our attachment to mere survival and to the securing of creature comforts. Kass concludes that the condition for living life seriously is our mortality and our vulnerability.

A repeated question around the blogosphere these days is whether anything of enduring value will come from the pandemic.  Who knows?  Could it be that the greater felt awareness of our mortality, the precariousness and preciousness of life, will lead us toward gratitude and a more open-handed disposition toward the giftedness of things?  So much in our culture militates against giving thanks: an ideology of individualism that obscures our interdependence and our belonging to a larger whole; a technological mentality by which our doing and making become the measure of our lives; and a political discourse that gives principal attention to what is owed to us.  In all of this, the goodness of life as God’s gift is not allowed to shine through.  Can we begin to hope that “it takes a pandemic” to restore some balance to our life together and to keep us grounded in that love which sustains our lives?

Photo by Li Lin