What If Today We Were More Grateful?

The hardest arithmetic to master is the one which enables us to count our blessings.” – Eric Hoffer

I came across the following passage in a post on another blog I was reading this morning . . .

“[E]verybody’s always telling us to BE GRATEFUL BE GRATEFUL BE GRATEFUL and there is something to that. But for me, gratitude comes in moments, all encompassing, out of time moments—Kairos moments—and as a general knowing in the back of my head and heart. Gratitude is not always front and center for me. And I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude. Life is beautiful, and there is much for which to be grateful. But life is also tough. The big things are tough – like I’m sick, and I’m not getting better, and the little things are tough, like – WHY IS THIS PLAYDOH SO FREAKING HARD TO OPEN? The big and the little stuff get me down. And that’s okay. No need to be grateful all the time.”

And in response I wrote:

This reminds me of what Viktor Frankl wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning“—

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

“And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate. . . .

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful. . . .

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life.”

It’s hard to be grateful. No doubt about it. It’s difficult to put gratitude front and center. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. But the fact of the matter is that it’s just plain easier not to—not to put gratitude front and center. It takes so much effort, so much self-inflicted hardship and training, so much difficult and unpleasant self-analysis and self-overcoming, so much difficult inner work and inner rewiring, to facilitate that degree of a “metanoia.”

But it begs the question: If being as grateful as possible as often as possible isn’t our priority, then what is?

Survival? Self-preservation? Making it through the day so we can get up and do it all again tomorrow? And then the day after that and the day after that?

And then what?

What if we were all more grateful more often? How would that change things?

To me it seems clear that much of the time, life is neither inherently pleasant or unpleasant, easy or difficult, and that in those situations, it’s our attitude and thinking that either makes our experience of life at that moment either heavenly or hellish. In other words, as we are, so too is how we see and experience life. So thus the question—why not strive to make ourselves more grateful, to cultivate withn ourselves a greater attitude of gratitude and appreciation? Why not make gratitude more of a front and center focus? Because if not gratitude, then what?  What will we being allowing to rule us?  Anger?  Resentment? Bitterness? Disappointment? Constant craving? Ungratefulness?

No need to be grateful all of the time. . . . We don’t have to feel grateful all the time.” Fair enough. I’m not grateful all of the time. But I am much more appreciative and grateful than I was 10 years ago, not to mention 20 years ago.  I think that is something we can all strive to improve in—to be more grateful and appreciative today than we were yesterday or last year or 5 or 10 years ago.  That is certainly my aim.  I know that I do appreciate life more than I use to; I appreciate the little things, the simple things more. And teaching myself to be more grateful has definitely opened me up to more “kairos” moments. And learning how to be more appreciative and grateful has seemed to make many of life’s losses and sufferings more bearable. For one, there’s less regret over wasted time (for the simple fact that the more you appreciate life and live as if time is a gift, then the less of it you tend to waste by going through life sleepwalking or trying to numb yourself or being pissed off and angry that life isn’t meeting your demands). And two, there’s less “denial.” Part of what instills a sense of greater gratitude and appreciation for life seems to be facing how capricious and transient life is (granted this is very unpleasant to do, which is why so few tend to do it). And so the more deeply and honestly we come to terms with our own and others’ mortality (and cut back on our denial), then the proportionally greater potential we have to be grateful and appreciative. As Chesterton put it,

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether we take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

And so why not be as grateful as possible as often as possible and train ourselves in this way of engaging more and more of life? Especially if it allows us to go through life with more grace and perspective and composure?

I believe there is a part of each of us—the “what’s best in each us” part—that longs to fall to its knees more regularly and say more often with incredible depth of feeling:

“Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you . . .  thank you for my life. I had forgotten how big . . . thank you . . . “

And in my experience it requires a lot of honesty and courage and real humility to get in touch with that part of ourselves, and to desire to get in touch with that part of ourselves.

Humility seems to be the key. I think ultimately humility is the key to becoming more grateful and appreciative. After all, it takes a lot of real humility to wrestle honestly with our own mortality, to realize that we will die (our “pride” won’t let us think about our own death and how small we are). And it also takes a lot of humility to look a why we don’t want to put a greater sense of appreciation for life front and center in the way we live—it takes a lot of humility to really look at why we say “I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude.” To me, “I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into gratitude” lacks a certain amount of humility.  And it takes humility to learn—and the greater the lesson, typicaly the greater the humility required to learn it.  Personally, at this point in my life, I don’t know if there’s anything in life that I don’t want to be bossed or guilted into learning, especially if it holds the potential of helping me become a better human being. I really don’t care if I’m “right” in how I see life, what I’m more interested in is whether I’m seeing life accurately, fairly, honestly. It’s not an “ego” thing where I have to be right about it. —It’s not about who’s right but what’s right—or what’s true or most accurate.

Yes, “Pain is pain, and we all get the privilege of feeling it.” But there are other ways of looking at this. As Helen Keller put it, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life.”

To me this is what rings more true. And to me this is always the miracle—increasing our appreciation for life and for what we have; learning to see things more appreciatively, and downsizing that part of ourselves that tends to run petty, ungrateful, whiny, complaining, asleep. (“He must increase; I must decrease“—what’s best in me must increase, what’s worst and weakest in me must decrease.)  It’s a miracle whenever anyone awakens and increases their appreciativeness and gratefulness and decreases how disgruntled and unhappy and angry they are. And this is difficult; making this happen is difficult.  No doubt about it.  Affecting this change in ourselves—or even helping encourage it in others—is difficult.

But it’s the good kind of difficult. They type of difficult that makes us better human beings. . . .

“All of us have read thrilling stories in which the hero had only a limited and specified time to live. Sometimes it was as long as a year; sometimes as short as twenty-four hours. But always we were interested in discovering just how the doomed man chose to spend his last days or his last hours. . . .

“Such stories set us thinking, wondering what we should do under similar circumstances. What events, what experiences, what associations, should we crowd into those last hours as mortal beings? What happiness should we find in reviewing the past, what regrets?

“Sometimes I have thought it would be an excellent rule to live each day as if we should die tomorrow. Such an attitude would emphasize sharply the values of life. We should live each day with a gentleness, a vigor, and a keenness of appreciation which are often lost when time stretches before us in the constant panorama of more days and months and years to come. . . .

“In stories, the doomed hero is usually saved at the last minute by some stroke of fortune, but almost always his sense of values is changed. He becomes more appreciative of the meaning of life and its permanent spiritual values. It has often been noted that those who live, or have lived, in the shadow of death bring a mellow sweetness to everything they do.

“Most of us, however, take life for granted. We know that one day we must die, but usually we picture that day as far in the future. When we are in buoyant health, death is all but unimaginable. We seldom think of it. The days stretch out in an endless vista. So we go about our petty tasks, hardly aware of our listless attitude toward life.

“The same lethargy, I am afraid, characterizes the use of all our facilities and senses. Only the deaf appreciate hearing, only the blind realize the manifold blessings that lie in sight. . . . [T]hose who have never suffered impairment of sight or hearing seldom make the fullest use of these blessed faculties. Their eyes and ears take in all sights and sounds hazily, without concentration and with little appreciation. It is the same old story of not being grateful for what we have until we lose it, of not being conscious of health until we are ill.

“I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind and deaf for a few days at some time during his early adult life. Darkness would make him more appreciative of sight; silence would teach him the joys of sound. . . .

“Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. ‘Nothing in particular,’ she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.

“How was it possible, I asked myself, to walk for an hour through the woods and see nothing worthy of note? I who cannot see find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate symmetry of a leaf. I pass my hands lovingly about the smooth skin of a silver birch, or the rough, shaggy bark of a pine. In spring I touch the branches of trees hopefully in search of a bud, the first sign of awakening Nature after her winter’s sleep. I feel the delightful, velvety texture of a flower, and discover its remarkable convolutions; and something of the miracle of Nature is revealed to me. Occasionally, if I am very fortunate, I place my hand gently on a small tree and feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song. I am delighted to have the cool waters of a brook rush through my open fingers. To me a lush carpet of pine needles or spongy grass is more welcome than the most luxurious Persian rug. To me the pageant of seasons is a thrilling and unending drama, the action of which streams through my finger tips.

“At times my heart cries out with longing to see all these things. If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.

“If I were the president of a university I should establish a compulsory course in ‘How to Use Your Eyes’. The professor would try to show his pupils how they could add joy to their lives by really seeing what passes unnoticed before them. He would try to awake their dormant and sluggish faculties.” (Helen Keller, “Three Days to See.”)


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Turning Dragons into Princesses: What One Brave Thing Are You Going to Do Today?

What brave thing are you going to do today?

Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Invite someone dangerous to tea.” – Sark

What bit of apprehensiveness or aversiveness or lack of strength or perhaps even modicum of immaturity within yourself are you going to valiantly try to overcome today?

Is today the day when you will finally meet your own inner-Tyler Durden and invite him to tea? . . .

It’s much easier and safer to sit in a chair behind a desk and your computer screen and read or cite a quote, thrill to the words and the ideal it encapsulates, than it is to actually get out of that air-conditioned climate-controlled and safe environment and get to work attempting to actually live the words, put them into play in the real world, and in your own life and relationships.

The latter requires integrity and courage, and in fact helps to create these. The former requires neither, and if fact lessens both our integrity and our courage.

The easy way in life is seldom the right way.

Consider the following oft-quoted but seldom lived or acted on excerpt from Helen Keller—

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. . . . Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. . . . Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” (from “Let Us Have Faith,” pp. 50-51.)

That’s what’s usually quoted.

(And need I say rarely practiced or attempted?)

She goes on in the next paragraph to write, “Serious harm, I’m afraid, has been wrought to our generation by fostering the idea that they would live secure in a permanent order of things. It has tended to weaken the imagination and self-equipment and unfit them for independent steering of their destinies. They have expected to be given security instead of creating it and providing it, and so they now find none within themselves or in their universe. Before it’s too late they must learn and teach others that only by brave acceptance of change and all-time crisis ethics can they rise to the height of superlative responsibility.

The expectation we have of security first—of not having to use our courage, of not having to feel the fear and do something anyway—has also weakened the will and weakened our courage and our bravery and resilience. It’s weakened what’s best in us.

Thus we avoid difficulty and danger and the unknown and intense emotional situations and interactions and clutch anxiously at security first because we feel ourselves to be out of shape psychologically, to be ill-equipped to cope with the full intensity of life and strong emotions and feelings.

By repeatedly avoiding danger and difficulty and intense emotional situations and interactions—by backing down repeatedly—we shrink ourselves and our comfort zone.

And what’s more, the psychological musculature that we might have gained and developed by courageously wrestling with a given difficulty or emotionally intense encounter we not only don’t gain, we actually lose a bit of whatever emotional musculature or psychological fitness and stamina we might have already had by refusing the fight or the difficulty or the intense encounter.

Courage is a case of use it or lose. Grow or die. Get busy living or get busy withering and wilting away. There’s no neutrality when it comes to courage and developing emotional and psychological fitness, stamina, and health. With every choice in life to either avoid some immensity or difficulty and run from it, or to hold our ground and hold onto ourselves and face it and deal with both it and ourselves, we’re either building neo-cortical and limbic muscle mass, or we’re losing it and atrophying those parts of our brain.

Without constant use and practice, our courage muscles atrophy, we loss that musculature and become soft, less fit for life. And thus we become more tense, more afraid, more likely to clam up, wall up, clamor for security, more likely to feel anxious and insecure.

And thus a vicious downward cycle is set in motion.

Again, it’s a very dynamic relationship. One where there is absolutely no neutrality. We either live more daringly, take our lumps, but also possibly gain some benefits and strengths and occasional windfalls we would have never gained any other way, and grow and become more than we were before. Or we shrink, surrender, take the path of least resistance, and in doing so weaken ourselves, voluntarily cripple ourselves a bit, render ourselves more anxious, more insecure, more avoidant, less fit for life, and more likely to read and talk about courage rather than actually practice it. (We become more dis-integrated and hypocritical—more likely to say one thing but do the opposite.)

What’s more difficult when meeting someone new and exciting and interesting? Opening yourself up, risking being rejected or pushed away for being real with another, risking sharing honestly what’s on your mind, what’s really going on inside of you, what’s happened to you, what you’ve been through, and risk being rejected by another for being who you are and where you’ve been?

Or not doing this and keeping the relationship and the conversation at the level of a superficial though perhaps entertaining and witty exchange?

How does avoiding opening oneself, avoiding “living the questions” (that magnificent phrase of Rilke’s), avoiding risking being real and vulnerable in any way square with what Helen Keller is saying?

If you quote something, don’t you then have the responsibility of actually trying to embody it—of struggling honestly and heroically to live up to the ideals expressed?

We are safety-first creatures. We think life goes on forever. We think the Universe owes us a safe and secure and comfortable existence. We think things have to be made safe for us before we will take a leap. But how much of a leap is it really if things have been made safe and secure and fail-proof for us beforehand? It’s not a brave heroic character-building leap into the unknown; it’s not even a leap at all. It’s just a small next step into the known, into yet more safety and security—a continuation of the sure-thing we want to believe life is.

Make no mistake about it, Helen Keller’s excerpt is about living the questions; it’s about taking her words and getting off our butts and going out into the real world and putting them into practice in our own life and in our relationships with other real live human beings and living with more courage, more honesty, more integrity, more openness, and making our lives a bit more of a daring adventure. It’s about rowing for our lives towards the next great adventure or towards the next immense and plunging falls or dizzying possibly life-changing love or relationship. It’s not about rowing towards the safety of the nearest familiar shore and the shallows of a fallow riverbank where nothing new can occur in our life or in our relationships. It’s not about excerpting Keller’s words from the safety of our cubicle or laptop and keeping them in our head as an ego-fantasy or ego-ideal, and keeping them out of our limbs and actions where they’re meant to be. No, it’s about making space in our life, and then holding that space open—space for something new and unprecedented to occur, space for something immense and unexpected, space for something strange and courageous to happen.

To know and not to act is not to know at all. It is in fact to undermine our own development and sin against our own integrity. Because to know and not to act is to become more rather than less dis-integrated; it is to become better at compartmentalizing things that really ought to belong together. It is also to become more practiced at becoming disembodied or more in our heads. It is to become more comfortable living falsely, presenting a false self, becoming more of an ego in a skin bag.

It also serves to add more confusion to the world, more say or pretend to aspire to one thing but in reality do another and opposite thing.

It takes courage to act with integrity, to integrate what we recognize as being wise and healthy and beneficial for us, and actually try to live up to it and practice it and put it into play in our life. In fact doing this actually creates more courage. As well as self-confidence and integrity and real self-respect and self-esteem.

The Waiting Place. . .”

(…for people just waiting)

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

All around us there are people waiting for us to be brave, waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage, and in doing so transform some of the dragons around us into princesses.