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Underneath Chance, Gratitude Beckons

The following poem “Could Have” is by Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel prize-winning poet from Poland. Underneath its umbrella of wild chance, her words speak today with a fierce command: Look! Notice what has been given you in the name of mere happenstance.

These words have been with me all week, ever since reading them again after many years. They have crept beneath my skin, whispering, making me wonder at how luck and sheer coincidence have their say in what happens, at every moment, at every turn. They have brought me face to face with gratitude and its often hidden presence. Its singular gift to wake us up.

Gratitude has the miraculous power to connect us to what is alive and happening right in front of us—even as our thoughts try mightily to pull us down into the abyss of the fleet-footed past. Or launch us out of sight into the not-yet-created future.

I’m passing Wislawa’s words forward. This poem was published in 1972. Its message is timeless.


It could have happened. / It had to happen. / It happened sooner. Later. / Nearer. Farther. / It happened not to you.

You survived because you were the first. / You survived because you were the last. / Because you were alone. Because of people. / Because you turned left. Because you turned right. / Because rain fell. Because a shadow fell. / Because sunny weather prevailed .

Luckily there was a wood. / Luckily there were no trees. / Luckily there was a rail, a hook, a beam, a brake, / a frame, a bend, a millimeter, a second.

Luckily a straw was floating on the surface. / Thanks to, because, and yet, in spite of. / What would have happened had not a hand, a foot, / by a step, a hairsbreadth / by sheer coincidence.

So you’re here? Straight from a moment still ajar? / The net had one eyehole, and you got through it? / There’s no end to my wonder, my silence. / Listen how fast your heart beats in me.

—from Poems New and Collected 1957-1997


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