Giving Thanks Amid the Dandelions
The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.
Every child begins life fond of dandelions. On that day, my fondness came to an abrupt end.
That is why G.K. Chesterton caught me up short. In his Autobiography, he recalls how in a rhyme he wrote as a child, “I asked through what incantation or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion.”
This childhood sense of wonder stayed with him:
[A]nd since I have owned a garden (for I cannot say I have been a gardener) I have realised better than I did that there really is a case against weeds. But in substance what I said about the dandelion is exactly what I should say about the sunflower or the sun, or the glory which (as the poet said) is brighter than the sun. The only way to enjoy even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed.
But perhaps we need to begin at the beginning. Chesterton began his story thus:
Bowing down to blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority, and the tradition of elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington, and baptized according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge.
I do not allege any significance to the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.
While he was baptized, he was not raised in the faith. Instead, his upbringing and schooling engendered in him the skepticism of the late 19th century. By early adulthood, he had moved from “childish happiness” to “boyhood brooding.” In that brooding, he wrote that he:
did not very clearly distinguish between dreaming and waking; not only as a mood but as a metaphysical doubt. I felt as if everything might be a dream. It was as if I had myself projected the universe from within, with its trees and stars; and that is so near the notion of being God that it is manifestly even nearer to going mad.
Yet I was not mad in any medical or physical sense; I was simply carrying the scepticism of my time as far as it would go.
Chesterton was well read in the thinkers of his day, but admits that his approach to these questions of Being was almost entirely individualistic. “I was still thinking the thing out by myself,” he wrote, “with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own.”
His anchor for hope and sanity at the center of his “makeshift mystical theory” was a sense of gratitude:
[My theory] was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing. Even if the daylight was a dream, it was a day-dream; it was not a nightmare….
Or if it was a nightmare, it was an enjoyable nightmare. In fact, I had wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation if he were a lost soul.
I hung on to the remains of religion by one thin thread of thanks.
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” The 20th century German existentialist Martin Heidegger called this the most fundamental question in philosophy and sought to explain the nature of Being. Chesterton took Being as a given and reveled in it. What a surprise that there should be dandelions and that there should be a me who, through no effort or merit of my own, happens to be here to see those dandelions. The only reasonable response is gratitude.
Summing up, Chesterton wrote that this is “the chief idea of my life…. That is the idea of taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted.” And it was this chief idea that led Chesterton into the Christian faith for gratitude is looking for someone to thank. It can be an apologetic for today.
Chesterton describes two great barriers to gratitude having found the clue in a “Penny Catechism,” the little book given to children as a primer on the Christian faith. In it he read, “The two sins against Hope are presumption and despair.” Presumption and despair always prevent gratitude.
Despair is that state of mind that cares for nothing, seeking only to escape what is perceived to be intolerable reality. It is one of the distinguishing marks of our contemporary culture best seen in our endless quest for diversions. The news has been reinvented as entertainment, as have education, politics and worship. Our great complaint above all other complaints is “I’m bored,” by which we do not mean “I am not engaged,” but rather “I have not been titillated.” Boredom and the demand for entertainment are signs of despair that cannot look up to give thanks.
The second barrier to gratitude is presumption, another of our cultural maladies. Presumption, what we often call entitlement, is a distorted sense of rights. It constantly compares the dandelion I have today with the better ones they grew when I was a boy or the super-dandelions now being developed by a friend who is a professor at MIT or the European dandelions we saw last year on our trip to Paris.
“These are all methods,” wrote Chesterton, “of undervaluing the thing by comparison; for it is not familiarity but comparison that breeds contempt. And all such comparisons are ultimately based on the strange and staggering heresy that a human being has a right to dandelions.”
Today our list of “rights” is long and keeps growing at a remarkable rate. We believe we have a right to happiness, health, a house, an education, a spouse, vacations, and presumably dandelion-free lawns or, if we choose, fields of dandelions and tough beans for the neighbors.
Such thinking breeds a cultural mood of discontent that strangles gratitude in the cradle. If everything is a right, nothing is a gift so thanks for nothing.
Little children (before given the task of digging them out of the lawn) love dandelions. They see the bright flashes of yellow as gifts, not just for themselves, but plucked and gathered into bouquets, as gifts for mom or dad or grandma. Despite the fact that dandelions are weeds in the lawn and may be the world’s worst cut flowers, a limp bouquet of dandelions from a child is a glorious treasure that even the cynical typically receive with gratitude.
In precisely the same way, dandelions, sunflowers, the sun, the glory to come, and the simple fact that each of us exists at all when it could have been otherwise are gifts from a gracious Creator and as such, glorious treasures — grace upon grace — to be received with joyful gratitude even under a hot summer sun pulling weeds.
Copyright 2009 James Tonkowich. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Jim Tonkowich is a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jim is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife attend McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.