Expressions of Gratitude

Right now, I feel profound gratitude for vaccines and the scientists who created them, for a fulfilling career that allows me to learn and contribute in meaningful ways, and for the health and happiness of my husband and children. Each and every day, I’m thankful for colleagues who I consider friends and for friends who feel like family. I’m also grateful for good food, great books, loyal pets, for traditions that have been passed down for generations, and for new rituals (however odd) that we have created.

My favorite part of our annual Passover Seder tradition is when we sing Dayeinu. This year joyful voices from New York to New Mexico blended over the video conference airwaves, fortified by sweet kosher wine. Dayeinu is a Hebrew word that means “it would have been enough.” It’s an expression of gratitude offered as we recount the story of the Jewish liberation from slavery. “Had God brought us out of Egypt and not divided the sea for us,” someone reads, and we all reply with a resounding: “Dayeinu!

My family has commandeered dayeinu as an expression of everyday thanks, an acknowledgment of our good fortune. Unpacking a Chinese takeout order: scallion pancakes – yum!, lo mein – awesome!, oh wow – fried dumplings too?! “Dayeinu!” (Translation: Mom, you really outdid yourself this time!) On Christmas morning: but wait, there’s one more gift behind the couch. “Dayeinu!” (Bonus! I’m forever grateful!) Or on a hike through the woods during which we enjoy the fresh air and exercise…only to get to the top of the mountain to find a gorgeous view: “Dayeinu!” (It’s more than we could have hoped for.)

Practicing gratitude has all sorts of documented benefits to physical, social, and emotional health. Some ways to cultivate gratefulness include writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, or consciously counting your blessings. Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude are happier, healthier, and more optimistic; they have better self-esteem, improved friendships, lower blood pressure, and less aggression.

And yet, even knowing this, it’s easy to fall into the trap of despair, to wallow in missed opportunities, frustrations, and failures. No doubt we can all recount a litany of grievances, big and small. Individuals who have wronged us. Desires unfulfilled. Health crises. Exhaustion. Pain. And right now — after more than a year of pandemic isolation and loss, persistent deep-seated injustices and inequities, and senseless acts of hate and violence — no one would blame us for feeling an acute sense of hopelessness and grief. There is essential work to be done here. I believe it is possible to acknowledge this while at the same time remaining consciously grateful and intentionally thankful for the many good things in our lives.

As a kid, I played the classic French card game Mille Bornes. The objective is to rack up a trip of 1,000 miles before your opponent, who tries to thwart your progress by issuing hazards like flat tires, accidents, and speed limits. If you’re lucky enough to have a special safety card, you call out “coup fourré!” and the hazard immediately vanishes. Voilà — no more flat tire! I always interpreted this as a narrow escape, as if we dodged a bullet, a recognition that the situation could have taken a turn for the worse. (I’ve come to learn that the French phrase doesn’t actually mean this, but rather is a counter thrust in fencing or a cheap trick. Nevertheless, my family embraces this alternative meaning.)

We’ve taken to using this expression at odd times. Pick the toll booth lane that sails right through while the other has a mechanical failure? “Coup fourré!” (What luck!) Chef’s knife slips and crashes to the floor, narrowly missing my foot? “Coup fourré!” (That was a close one!) Your school gets a snow day while others are open? “Coup fourré!” (How fortunate!)

It’s a bit of a relief to consider these potential negative outcomes and quickly dismiss them. It makes us appreciate what we have and realize how fortunate we really are. No matter how tough things seem or what difficulties are thrown our way — there are always some coup fourré moments that make us feel truly lucky.

My kids like to joke around using coup fourré! and dayeinu! interchangeably. We get an extra munchkin from the donut shop? One will say “dayeinu!” and another will counter with “coup fourré!” Another tech company makes headline news about a security breach? “Coup fourré!” I’ll say under my breath and my son will respond with a smile, “Dayeinu!” The varsity hockey team makes it through the season without a forced COVID quarantine? “Coup fourré and dayeinu!

I’m glad these peculiar words are in our lexicon, though I acknowledge we are butchering the usage. We are taking a moment to be consciously thankful — for what could have been, for all that we have. It would be easy to spend our time lamenting problems, jealous of others’ good fortune, focused more on what could possibly be than what actually is. Instead, we recognize the value of taking stock and appreciating our many blessings, big and small.

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