Thanksgiving Thoughts on The Many Useful Uses of Gratitude, Appreciation, and Contentment

When I married at twenty-one, my grandmother admonished me to feel very very grateful for such a rich start in life. She reminded me very solemnly that many of my contemporaries, some of my cousins even, could barely squeak by during those difficult times.


I loved and respected my grandmother, but never asked her my burning question: how does one go about honestly “feeling grateful” when one doesn’t really feel particularly grateful?


In fact, I thought myself legitimately entitled to the handsome, charming man I had fallen for, and equally entitled to the many luxuries we enjoyed. My friends were marrying similarly educated, professional men, and after all, my family had made it clear to me that it was my job to marry “wisely.” I never considered marrying any other sort of man. Far from feeling lucky, I felt rather more constrained and obligated to marry a financially solid type. Why, I wondered, should I now feel fortunate to have earned that reasonable expectation?


But my grandmother said I should feel grateful, and my grandmother, I always thought, was very good and very wise. So how did I go about cultivating a feeling of gratitude? And, for that matter, why? And who might possibly profit from such feelings of gratitude?


I was at a stage in life where I had rejected many of my childhood religious beliefs, and my newly revised version of God was different than the old, unattractive, sycophant-approving sort somehow dependent upon his children’s continual praise and gratitude for his jollies.


My parents and husband knew I was grateful for their many gifts—for my education, my life, their love, time, and talents—but that wasn’t what Gram meant. Surely working at feeling grateful couldn’t change anything in my life. Wasn’t gratitude a lot like worry, in that it couldn’t change a hair on my head? If so, why do it? If gratitude couldn’t affect anything, what was the use of it?


I finally decided that Gram wanted me to constantly feel at least a little guilty for having so much good in my life while others in the world had so little, which truly seemed like a waste of my time. I mean, what could be good about feeling bad about the good in life? Could she reasonably expect me to feel guilty about being young and healthy and smart and funny and sexy, when, frankly, I didn’t feel like I was to blame for it, but was sort of just born that way? If others were not so, even if many others were living miserable lives, how was that my fault? How could my feeling guilty all the time possibly help them?


In fact, I felt already too heavily burdened with guilt to feel grateful about anything, and I wasn’t eager to add on any more guilt. Like many young people, rather than feeling accomplished, I always felt I was falling way behind in what I was capable of, in what was expected of me. Instead of acknowledging my achievements and possessions, instead of noticing the good and the beautiful in my life, and in the-world-as-it-is, mostly I just felt guilty because I hadn’t done more, hadn’t been more, hadn’t acquired more. I was all too clearly aware of every one of the mistakes and misdirections of my brief life so far, and I was certain that, had I been more conscientious, made better choices, been less selfish and more wise, I could have been much further along in attaining the somewhat vague adult state of global perfection I thought I was supposed to pursue.


I rarely slowed down long enough to feel grateful for anything I earned or accomplished, aside from the first quick momentary flush of happiness and pride before I dismissed the importance of whatever I’d done. I never even went to any of my graduation ceremonies, but instead, silently accused myself of being a slacker (“I should have done this much quicker…”) before rushing on to focus on the next thing. I had enthusiasm and talent and smarts, but a poor work ethic, no concept of goal-setting or commitment or loyalty or clear personal goals, a belief that I should know the answers already (so don't ask questions) and no understanding of doing my best. So I took little pride in anything I accomplished. Even the fact that I had accomplished something diminished its value, because I knew well my careless habits: surely if I could do something, anyone could have done it.


From both my upbringing and the pressures of a materialistic culture, I always felt that much more was expected of me than of most others, certainly more than I had ever achieved. I knew that more was expected of those to whom much was given, and indeed I had been born, if not with a gold spoon in my mouth, at least a silver one. So I always felt rushed and pushed and far behind-the-eight-ball. Taking the time to stop and savor my achievements seemed a little like false pride, considering my advantages, and anyway, although I sometimes felt conceit, I rarely felt proud.


I looked at life as an arbitrarily and unfairly handicapped race to a vague and impossible-to-reach finish line that was general human perfection. I was resentful of those who seemed to have an unfair “head start” on me, the girls with more money and character and possessions and direction and good habits and good sense, not to mention more adventures and fun.


I rarely looked around me to notice how comparatively very lucky I was, rarely compared my good fortune with those having less than I. I was too busy focusing on all the other people who seemed to have a head start on me. It never occurred to me that life might not be a race, that each person’s goals could be finite and unique, or that where one starts or arrives is far less interesting or commendable than what one does with the time and opportunities one has. All I knew was that my life seemed very pressured, and that the broad goals of generalized human perfection seemed chaotically both mutually competitive and completely unattainable.


Ten years later, years filled with gains and losses and an ever-louder drumbeat reminding me that I was falling behind, falling behind, falling behind, screaming at me that all my many impulsive tradeoffs were bad choices or downright mistakes, I felt nearly hysterical about all that still seemed “expected of me” that I hadn’t yet attained.


One evening in my early thirties, at a small study group in a church, it was announced that we would do an exercise on gratitude.


Finally, I thought, maybe now I’ll learn what Gram wanted to teach me, so long ago. I knew by now that she couldn’t have been thinking of constant guilt….


We were asked to draw a word from a paper bag full of words, and then to meditate silently for ten minutes on our feelings of gratitude for whatever item we drew. The word I drew was: “my car.”


My car?! My stupid, ugly, old clunky and unreliable car, so embarrassing to drive and so costly to maintain. How on earth could I be expected to be grateful for my dumb car!? I couldn’t possibly be grateful for it for one minute, much less ten!


I was indignant, so sure that this idiotic exercise wasn’t going to work at all for me because I had drawn the wrong word, a thing no one could be grateful for. Maybe the exercise would have worked for someone with a nice XKE convertible….. but when I thought of my car at all, it had always been with resentment. I usually mentally kicked its leaky tires and cursed its doggy interior and rusting, peeling paint. What a pointless exercise.


But, dutifully, I sat…and thought. And realized, to my astonishment, that there were a million things my dumb old car made possible for me and for my little daughter. I began to count all the things that we couldn’t do, without my car….


By the end of the exercise, I was profoundly grateful for my car, and never again drove it without a feeling of deep appreciation. And that same gratitude has carried over to every other car I’ve ever owned.


And, as well, to every possession and person and achievement in my life from then on, each of which, I finally recognized, I would be very sad without.


Here’s what I didn’t get about gratitude, way back when: As far as happiness is concerned, the important difference between people is not what they do, have, or achieve, but whether they notice and appreciate what they have, do, and achieve. Those who cultivate gratitude (or contentment or appreciation) in their life are always much happier than those who don’t, no matter how materially rich or poor they are. For proof of this, consider how many wealthy bored housewives and restless husbands there are, spending their lives fretting and unhappy, while others far less materially blessed than they seem to find contentment in the tiny satisfactions of their ordinary, everyday lives.


I recently learned a little anti-insomnia exercise that never fails to put this me into a contented dreamland. Like the old Bing Crosby song, it’s about appreciation: “When you’re worried and you can’t sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep.” I focus on all the little things in my life, with appreciation for every little detail, right down to my sheets and my country, my pillow, the weather, my dear husband asleep beside me…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.


The time I spend deliberately focusing on feeling grateful—counting my blessings—always adds to my happiness, just as the time I spend fretting over negative stuff always subtracts from my happiness.


My paean of appreciation, now, today, at this moment, is gratitude for these ideas, the words to express them, the freedom and free time to write them, this computer, the internet, my blog, my home, my husband’s support for all my activities, this cup of tea, my health, education, experiences, my hard-learned lessons….


Focusing on losses and worries is an artifact of living in the past and future (which don’t exist) instead of living in the present moment, the only time anyone ever has to live, love, work, to achieve or enjoy or build or celebrate anything. Regrets and envies and fears are always about the past and future. All good things, including appreciation, happen only right now.


Having lots of things doesn’t guarantee our enjoyment of them once the newness quickly wears off. Many who grow roses forget to stop and smell them, just as we can become oblivious of the many kindnesses which come our way, unless we stop to enumerate them. In truth, we never really possess anything, unless we take the time to appreciate it.


I also now practice a kind of reverse gratitude, something Buddhists practice, reminding myself that all of my blessings, and all of my “curses”—my challenges and heartaches—will all alike someday pass away. One of my favorite sayings nowadays is, “This too shall pass.” Appreciation truly comes with the realization that all things change with time, change being one of the few constants we can count on in this life. No matter what good or bad is in our lives, this too shall someday pass away. God giveth and taketh away. I try to hold in mind, not morbidly, but humbly, that a war or an accident or a natural disaster or a disease or someone’s moment of insanity could instantly take away everything.


My mother’s thirty-year struggle with an unusually severe case of rheumatoid arthritis helped me, in retrospect, learn to enjoy what I have, in the present. As her disease progressed inexorably, crippling a new area every few years—first her knees, then her feet, her hands, her shoulders, her jaw–she found it very difficult to see that she still had opportunities in the present moment to use and enjoy the faculties which she still had. I remember how, after each attack, she would sigh, “If only I had appreciated how much I could still do back when I still had my good feet (hands/neck…. )…when I could still chew and enjoy my food….” Although she did her best to protect her children from her sorrows, her very human focus on the negatives of her disease left her frightened and suffering much of her later life.


One of her many gifts to me, a gift I cherish, is the reminder to focus here and now, in every aspect of my life, not on my losses, or on worries about inevitable future losses, but on all that I still have to be grateful for, all that I still can enjoy. With every loss, I try to say, “Well, at least I still have (whatever)” and count my blessings for all that is still good and beautiful and worthwhile in this world and in my life at this moment, all I still can do, be, and have, and not what is no longer possible. Bad things have happened and will happen again in my life and in every life whether we worry about them or not, so I try to remember that worrying can only hurt but never help.


I also know unarguably, whenever I see a sad face along my path, that I could have been that person. Certainly I have made as many mistakes as most others have made, yet somehow had many second chances at happiness. I’m grateful for my awareness of the fragility of life, and the knowledge that, at least in this lifetime, all my joys and sorrows, my possessions and abilities and opportunities and loves will gradually (or finally) be taken from me. Rather than a depressing thought, this realization helps me live fully here, now, during the only time when life can be lived.


No one ever solves this great puzzle of human life, this problem…but maybe that’s OK; because maybe we’re not meant to solve it. Maybe life isn’t a riddle at all, but an open-ended adventure to be lived, different for each unique indiividual, but still, the gift of life….. Maybe I can learn to embrace my one-of-a-kind life “as it is,” in all its complexity and chaos and change.


A wonderful scene in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, shows Emily rising up from her endlessly peaceful sleep on a graveyard hill, to go back and invisibly observe a day in her youth. Of course she sees herself, her parents, her future husband, and all the everyday richness and boredom and frustration and beauty of her life through newly appreciative eyes. In fact, she finds it all too poignant and painful to bear, and cries out, “Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you…. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?”


The answer is, of course: No. We all get caught up in our dramas, delusions, and tragedies and forget to appreciate what is. But even knowing this, we can try, amidst our goals and our strivings, to remember to take some time to bless each person, each flower, each gift we give and receive, each moment, happy or sad, with our awareness and gratitude. Love, appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness of the world, just the way it is, is the way I wish to walk always, in gratitude. I know my life will be happier, richer, and more alive for embracing such always-available contentment.


Another way, perhaps the best way, to notice how much I have, is to give it away—not only money and goods, but also talents, help, and forgiveness. All my gifts demonstrate to me how richly blessed I am, and my sense of wealth only increases with the giving. How much richer Bill and Melinda Gates must feel these days as they travel the world in support of their charitable foundations. And since we are all—in the most profound sense—one, whenever I give, I give but to myself, and it can be but my own gratitude that I earn.


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Bad Things That Could Happen If We Ignore the Rumors of a Coming Coup in Iraq

David Ignatius casually mentions widespread rumors of a coming regime-change/coup/junta in Iraq, in his recent Washington Post column Beyond the Coup Rumors, Options for Iraq; other reporters also mention scheming among many Iraqi politicians fearful of a U.S. retreat. I hope lots of influential people including politicians, reporters, bloggers, and members of Congress are presently investigating and reporting these rumors, because, well, so much smoke means something's smoldering somewhere. Too often, elaborately orchestrated coups are carefully concealed by the small, powerful cadres which hatch them—until after the coup is a fait accompli.


Why the stealth? Because coups are illegal, immoral, undemocratic, and politically insupportable, at least before the fact. And  also, because forgiveness is easier to get than permission.


If a coup in Iraq takes the predictable and dangerous course which fourteen previous clandestine American regime changes have taken in the past, it will be closely followed by a rabble-rousing pretext demanding immediate increased involvement to sustain that coup (see my review of  Stephen Kinzer’s Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq) ( ) or Chalmers Johnson's Blowback.


Historically, the concocted pretexts for expanded involvement after coups are well-publicized, highly inflammatory attacks and atrocities upon Americans or other innocents, flagrant events which incite the public to knee-jerk U.S. involvement, rescue, and/or revenge.


A planned Iraq coup could well coincide with upcoming congressional elections; it could also quickly be followed (after the elections, of course) with a massive troop buildup in the Middle East, as necessary to sustain it.


Because such actions are rarely the will of the American people, it would behoove responsible oversight members of Congress to immediately investigate the sources of these rumors, identify their planners, and subject them to close oversight examination or preventative legislation–before any such coup can be initiated.


David Ignatius hints at plans to overthrow the current, (somewhat) democratically elected Maliki government via a military coup or junta. He doesn’t say whether the rumored plots are supported by U.S. corporate interests or government agencies, although he alludes to commission-style juntas composed of neocon and Sunni-favored politicians.


Neo-cons may dream of another Hussein-look-alike henchman who takes brutal control of Iraq and re-establishes order, so that everyone (except, apparently, irrelevant Iraqis) can return to the golden days of yesteryear when oil gushed reliably and prices stayed low.


However, a coup would make no sense to anyone except the few currently ruling (and panicking) neocons, who may see this approach as the only way to achieve their vision of a colonialized corporatocracy in the Middle East, free of Bush’s irritating preferences for democratic processes.


Such a coup would be insupportable insanity. The U.S. cannot micromanage the future course of the peoples of the Middle East, as if we still lived in the age of empire of Attila, Alexander, Rome, Great Britain, or even the 20th century U.S. Our common twenty-first century planet is too small, too interconnected, too self-aware—and maybe finally just compassionate enough to refuse such an unrighteous solution.


People everywhere want to overcome the destructive selfishness and violence of the past, to live mindfully in peaceful, mutually-supportive diversity on our fragile blue planet. People everywhere want to work together with all other nations to solve the real problems of this century: the ravages of disease, injustice, hopelessness, hunger, greed, environmental degradation, natural disasters, ignorance, addiction, prejudice, nuclear proliferation, crime, poverty, war, terrorism, and yes, violence itself.


President Bush can still redeem himself in the eyes of history as the good old boy he means to be, but first he must stand up courageously and presidentially to his neocon friends and their misguided schemes. If Mr. Bush wishes to be remembered as a force for good, rather than a dupe for a tiny manipulative clique, he should go to work immediately with Congress and cabinet to cut short any planned coups, and to plan a thoughtful withdrawal of all U.S. troops and bases from Iraq.


During his remaining years in office, he has an opportunity to devote the $2 billion/a day we currently spend on war, toward brokering a lasting Middle East peace agreement. Then he can offer generous support to those regional leaders willing to compromise, together rebuilding a peaceful Middle East to their mutual specifications, not ours.


If President Bush wades deeper into an exploding Iraq now, to prop up a coup or to attend to certain blowback from it, he will waste his last two years, and all our money, not to mention vast swaths of American and Iraqi lives, on a futile, catastrophic, Vietnam-like last-gasp effort to impose narrow-minded changes upon a very distant, very old, and very dissimilar civilization.


If the coup rumors are ignored, Americans will wake up someday soon to news that a coup has already taken place (or has been disastrously attempted); that American lives are in danger; and that a far-more massive American military force must be rushed immediately off to Iraq. In just this way have fourteen previous regime changes secretly been engineered by past Presidents and their administrative and corporate cronies, all to American discredit, all at shocking human and material cost.


Once such jingoistic adventures get started on their mindless juggernauts, once demagogues begin feeding the public imagination with new reasons for new fighting, then an unending toll of new, unforeseen losses and enemies will make the widening conflicts almost impossible to stop. If a few right-wing zealots might welcome an “inevitable” Armageddon in the Middle East, the vast majority of Americans would not.


It would be wonderful if James Baker could visualize the shape of an eventual compromise following such a catastrophe, and be so bold as to broker that same compromise right now, before any more bloodletting.


But the United States cannot offer itself as an honest broker until we withdraw our own selfish corporate and national interests from the current struggle for resources and power being waged among those having fair, reasonable and moral interests in the Middle East—that is, those who live there. A peaceful regional solution cannot be “about” American interests. Our only interest should be the advantages to all of a lasting Middle East peace. When we relinquish our insistence upon regional control, and act instead as a wealthy, influential “outside” party, we can contribute greatly to a peaceful outcome, and earn back invaluable international respect and cooperation.


Having played Middle East control freak for too long, it may be difficult to lay our selfish material interests aside and let other agendas lead, but we must limit ourselves to offering only money and peaceful assistance toward the reconstruction goals of cooperative, peaceful regional leaders.


We owe David Ignatius a debt of gratitude for warning us about the possibility of coming reckless political adventuring. Whether bloggers, reporters, members of Congress or other influential leaders will rise to prevent such a tragic escalation…we shall see. For all concerned—and that’s all of us—Albert Einstein offered this startling observation: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but I know that World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”


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Last-Minute Dithering Before I Cast My Ballot

Leaders throughout history have terrified citizens into going to war by hinting at unverifiable secret knowledge that is so terrifying it can’t be told without compromising national defense, knowledge which insidiously “necessitates” encroachment upon civil freedoms until power finally comes to reside far away from the people.


The vote in November really does come down to whether we move rapidly toward a police state, or work our way steadily toward a peace state.


As President Bush continues to aggrandize his growing illegal kingly powers through “signing statements” and other such indignities, he is lurking  in the deepening shadows of that police state, where my not-so-brave little blog—and many others far braver—will flicker out, replaced by a cornucopia of Roveish to Limbaughesque blog options.


My vote this time will go only to those having track records of resisting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are urging an end to war now.


Withdrawing from Iraq while protecting Iraqi allies, and while righting, as best we can, the wrongs we have inflicted upon this tragically exploited nation, is an expensive, complicated proposition we must undertake immediately.


Alternatively, if we continue to spend $2 billion a week warring on Iraq, we can:


  • “have our troops come under attack every 15 minutes;
  • spawn new legions of terrorists who rise up against the overspending;
  • destroy what was left of the Iraqi infrastructure;
  • create a civil war for our own amusement and then shake our heads at their violence;
  • traumatize the lives of innocent Iraqi children;
  • kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people;
  • secretly set up state-of-the-art torture chambers;
  • use lots of toxic chemicals to ensure that the land and water are destroyed;
  • test our latest weaponry on real live targets;
  • illegally imprison innocent people for years;
  • listen to the fear spin that is the Bush administration mantra;
  • watch our national integrity rapidly erode, and
  • feel the disintegration of our own humanity as we turn a blind eye to the crimes we commit.

 Now is not the time to turn that blind eye or to remain silent. Fear does not have to rule, and peace is a cost-effective and far less deadly alternative.”*


I will also be looking for leaders willing to invest heavily in peace, including a cabinet-level Department of Peace (see as well as leaders who will keep people safe at home, outlaw torture now with no exceptions, support court review of all government spying, reduce our dependence on oil, and support safe, legal immigration.


*Many thanks to Nancy Arnold of Union Bridge, MD, from whose recent Letter-to-the-Editor of The Frederick News-Post the above excellent quoted points were taken.






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If THE DEPARTED Reflects American Cultural Offerings to the World, Then We Yankees Truly Should Stay Home

The Departed is a too-long slog through a repellent underworld of hopelessness, human frailty, and continual struggle. An angry, bitter old man’s cynical vision of despair and disillusionment, it mocks all human efforts to transcend past and primal influences. Its desired audience-response seems to be disgust.


Although The Departed offered challenging roles to talented actors and film-makers, I kept wondering, why did any of them, the immensely talented and capable Scorsese included, even bother? Why make this movie? What’s the point of pooling all that energy, creativity, and talent on such a boring, pointless script? The Departed is neither entertaining, nor satisfying, nor thought-provoking, nor enlightening, nor any other respected goal of movie-making—unless perhaps you find pleasure in staring at cripples or ogling car wrecks.


Scorsese’s many clumsy attempts at youthful (Tarantinoesque?) edginess played out as merely shock-by-politically-incorrect low-life humor,  inspiring only embarrassed titters. I found this film completely lacking in compassion, crass, boorish, and childishly defiant about religion, race, and responsibility. It was definitely a movie offering family values–all the wrong ones. For those hooked on action and violence who want to see positive values, start with L.A. Confidential or A History of Violence (see my review elsewhere in this blog), In the Line of Fire or The Fugitive. It can be done!


When I compare this kind of American blockbuster to, say, the Iranian blockbuster, Children of Heaven–also a depiction of human struggle under the most difficult circumstances–I can certainly understand why many Muslims find our culture decadent, and why they hope to prevent us from infecting their own cultures.


Always in search of high-quality action movies which my husband and I can both enjoy, we saw The Departed on opening night out of respect for Scorcese’s better (if uneven) previous efforts—The Age of Innocence, Taxi Driver, Casino, and Raging Bull. We even heard, while standing in line, that the reviews so far were stellar. What a disappointment.


Leonardo di Caprio’s and Mark Wahlberg’s brilliant performances were very appealing and convincing, but I found little else to like. The sound was uneven too—either way too loud (I literally protected my ears) or too soft.


In comparison, Invinceable—although formulaic—was a recent high-quality action movie we will add to our collection, one which I would be proud to export to other countries as an example of American culture and entertainment. That we might use our great wealth and freedom in order to corrupt the minds of our own youth and those around the world with garbage like the life-sucks-and-then-you-die story offered by The Departed is a truly depressing thought. 


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