On Gratitude and the Essayification of Life


“Tabbing” is what I call my daily practice of scrolling through emails, Facebook, and Twitter, clickling on any interesting links that pop out. It usually ends with an intimidating row of nearly twenty tabs of articles that I generally avoid but occasionally binge-read, plowing through multiple articles at once. The few articles that get me thinking I send off to friends via email or Facebook with a sentence or two of my thoughts.

There is nothing inherently wrong with “tabbing.” But, as a result of reading James K.A. Smith’s thoughts on how liturgies – secular and sacred – subconsciously shape us in profound ways, I have begun to unpack the driving values behind this practice of mine in order to see what kind of person it is shaping me into.

One of its driving values is that “plowing” through the stack is more important than “chewing” through” it. Productive tabbing is about the number of articles I can get through, not the quality of thoughts spurred from reading them.

One could apply “tabbing” to a whole host of other activities beyond reading online articles, because “tabbing” is about how we relate to our experiences. We absorb an experience (going to a concert, reading an article, etc), maybe post a sentence about it on Twitter or Facebook, and move on quickly to the next one. We effectively box up that experience, slap a label on it, and send it down the conveyor belt.

Christy Wampole, the writer behind “How to Live Without Irony,” might say that my practice is part of a superficial, essayist mode of living. The Italian word for essay is “saggio,” as she notes in a recent NY Times article, “The Essayification of Everything,” which contains the same root as “assaggiare,” which means to sample, taste or nibble food. In contrast to the certitude of company mission statements, political slogans, and even college papers, an essay is much more tentative, explicit about the fact that it is making a humble attempt and invites the reader into conversation. She defines the essay as a “short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude.”

The sheer number of options before us – in reading, eating, dating, and so on – encourages noncommittal sampling and nibbling, enabling an “essayist” mode of living. At its worst, it is unreflective, as experiences are consumed and then abandoned, and “little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched.”

At its best, it is meditative and cumulative, ruminating on experiences, storing them away, and retrieving them later to reflect on them in a new light:

Essayism consists in a self-absorbed subject feeling around life, exercising what Theodor Adorno called the “essay’s groping intention,” approaching everything tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal. Banal, everyday phenomena — what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us — rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life? Why something rather than nothing? Like the Father of the Essay, [Montaigne], we let the mind and body flit from thing to thing, clicking around from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink: if Montaigne were alive today, maybe he too would be diagnosed with A.D.H.D.

How do we prevent ourselves from flitting from thing to thing like gluttons at a buffet? We have heard the advice to “slow down a little,” “savor a bit more,” but those remarks tend to focus more on behavior modification rather than reassess the fundamentals of how we approach things.

We tend to truly savor and chew on something if we receive it with a sense of wonder (e.g. the first time we stepped into a movie theater or a sports stadium) and gratitude (e.g. opening birthday gifts). The question then becomes, “How do we cultivate a sense of wondrous gratitude?” Most of us already have the habit of giving thanks before our meals. What if we extended that habit – and did it thoughtfully – before we embarked on other sorts of experiences, cultivating a counter-liturgy to our current liturgy of gluttonous tabbing?

Sarah Ngu

Sarah grew up in Malaysia and California, and is now a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York. She is an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University.