The sacrificial lamb

In the West, gratitude is the go-to emotion for our times, and we–begrudging, resentful and churlish– must learn to sprinkle it like salt to add savor to our lives. Since the end of the bitter and twisted, grasping 1990s, experts in positive psychology on America’s West Coast have urged us to cultivate gratitude because it will make us feel happier. Being grateful, and expressing gratitude to others, endows each of us with more energy, empathy and optimism they say. In an essay “Why Gratitude Is Good.” Dr. Robert Emmons from University of California, Davis breaks down what Gratitude is:

First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

 

If America has come latterly to gratitude through the self-help books of Emmons and others, here in Armenia, the practice dates back to pagan times. Take Ara as an example:

IMG_5875Ara is the father of two small children, one of whom needs physiotherapy at a Yerevan hospital a couple of times a week. The hospital is more than one hour away from home. Ara had a comfortable Nissan–one of the nicest cars in his village–and drove it with pride until a couple of weeks ago when someone ran into him, causing $2000 of damage to the car. That’s at least six month’s salary in this part of the world. The car is a write-off, and with it, a lot of the family’s comfort, security and everyday activity. Ara escaped with a bad bump on the head–indeed miraculous as he never wears a seatbelt. He considers himself lucky and he and his family are grateful, genuinely grateful. So grateful they had a matagh, a pagan ritual of gratitude.

They slaughtered a lamb. This happened before I knew anything about it, so I don’t know for sure if there was a ritual performed in front of the church, but probably so. I first saw the carcass when it was being manhandled into our cold-room, ready to be butchered and cooked.

The table at Alla and Ara’s was set for 15. The usual herbs, tomatoes and cucumber were supplemented by two or three types of mixed salad. There was wine for the women, soda for the children, and vodka for the men. The best glasses and china adorned the table. Platters of shwarma–rolls of ground meat squeezed round metal skewers and cooked until burnt and crispy on the outside–were covered with lavash to soak up the grease.  These took pride of place–until the bowls of matagh appeared. Matagh is lamb boiled in salted water and served when a family has something to be thankful for. The lamb is ritually killed, cooked in this specific way until falling off the bone, and then served before nightfall to people from seven families. We had a couple of aunties, and lots of neighbors and friends. The salt will have been blessed. The unfortunate animal will have been a healthy male. The matagh must be eaten all on one day. We used lavash to pick up lumps of meat, forming ungainly sandwiches that dripped. The meat was delicious–surprisingly so for something so knuckly and grey. There were plentiful toasts, but not, as far as I could tell, any kind of prayer. Ara beamed throughout, glad to be there.

It is hard to know how this family will manage without a good car. The bus-stop is too far for Arsen to walk, and few family members or neighbors have a car that could make the round-trip to the capital twice a week. I fretted about this while I ate, and I know the family are worried sick too. But in the manner of most Armenians, they accept their burden, set their shoulders and soldier on. Their ability to focus on the good–Ara’s still here, unhurt and happy–is, to me, remarkable. A real lesson in humility and positive thinking. They travel hopefully always. I wish I was like them. I hope it will take them far.

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