To feel a sense of gratitude, our predisposition to ingratitude needs to be revisioned. Another way of thinking about this predisposition is through the notion of “habit”.
We don’t wake up each day with the express purpose of heedless fault-finding, dissatisfaction and grumbling ingratitude. But we do, on most days, look at the world through eyes configured at, or just below our baseline or set-point of happiness. This is also known as the hedonic treadmill. So fifty men and women, either leavened by good fortune, or sunk by bad (in this case lottery-winners and paraplegics), don’t stray in the long run that far from where they started from.
How, if at all, do we jog ourselves off the hedonic treadmill? Cummings does it, I think, through simple but startling linguistic inversions. Instead of “this most”, he gives “most this”; “blue true” rather than “true blue”, “human merely being” instead of “merely human being”. The effect is that of rinsing our tastingtouchinghearingseeingbreathing faculties to a point where the desired transcendent receptiveness of the concluding lines can be induced. Perhaps.
Reciting the whole poem, mantra-like, at the beginning of the day, which I have been trying to do on my morning walk this week, is intended to have a similar effect: an attempt to hijack the hedonic treadmill with schema-disconfirming data.
My hedonic treadmill is to be found in a dingy gym just off Holloway Road, with tinny KISS FM piping out of the TV sets hanging above our heads as we assiduously walk and run in place. No greenly spirit of trees or blue true dream of sky, certainly nothing natural, infinite yes about the activities there. Hard to be grateful on a treadmill, other than for the habitual certainties it provides.
But in reciting the poem, some kind of antidotal activation occurs. Dogs do something similar. How can their tongue-lolling, tail-wagging, thrilled response to a ball, a walk, a wheaten treat not enjoin us to take part in their world? And in so doing, dwell for as long as the time it takes us to recite the poem, or if we’re lucky, a bit longer, in something approximating contentment.