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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