From the November 2015 issue of The Rotarian
When I was 20 years old, I flew to Israel for a semester abroad. The moment we landed, all the passengers onboard burst into applause. I’d never seen such a thing. The man next to me, an elderly Hasid, sensed my bewilderment.
“This is to say thanks,” he murmured.
“For the miracle of safe passage to the promised land.” He looked at me for a long moment. “It is a miracle, don’t you think?”
I don’t remember much about that semester. But this exchange has haunted me for nearly three decades. I’m still taken aback by the towering ignorance of my response.
After all, an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to the story of how the Jews struggled to reach Israel. It took them 40 years of wandering in the desert and 10 angrily dispatched commandments. Those who reached the modern state of Israel often did so only after escaping, or surviving, years of persecution, including the horrors of the Holocaust.
The idea that a Jew could simply climb onto a giant steel bird, settle into a comfy seat, and be hurtled into the land of milk and honey at 500 miles per hour – by any sane measure, this ranked as a miracle.
But the applause stunned me because I already had learned to take air travel for granted. It wasn’t a miracle. It was just a drag, a long, bumpy taxi ride. I had fallen under what I now see as the larger modern spell of ingratitude.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude recently, and struggling to understand why the people who have the most to be thankful for often are the least grateful. Some of this has to do with basic human nature: Plenitude can have the paradoxical effect of breeding entitlement. We forget just how lucky we are to be living in this era, and amid such abundance.
But in America especially, we also have some powerful enablers. Our mass media, for instance, tend to focus obsessively on scandal and mayhem, on things gone wrong. The basic message is that our world is going to hell in a handbasket. And thus what we consent to view as “news” – especially when delivered by for-profit demagogues – isn’t news at all, but a series of complaints. Lurking within these rants is a monstrous arrogance that has infiltrated our entire civic discourse: Never mind what we already have, it roars, we deserve more.
Our consumer culture incites (and feeds upon) this same mood of grievance. Why? Because an unhappy citizen is an ideal consumer, one ready to believe that the next purchase will lead to the elusive kingdom of happiness.
The foundational myth here is that once our lives become luxurious enough, we’ll all be happy. But with each new convenience, it’s our sense of entitlement that swells, not our contentment. Who says grace over a meal? Or thinks to thank the workers who haul away our garbage? Heck, most of us won’t even get up from our seats to change the TV channel anymore.
I see this cycle most powerfully (and painfully) as a parent. The more we give our children, the more they seem to demand. Before long, ice cream for dessert is no longer a treat. It’s an expectation. Then the pretext for a tantrum.
What many of us lack isn’t material, but emotional and spiritual: the humility to value what we have, rather than focusing on what we don’t. The question is: How do we reverse this spiral in our culture and within our own lives? Can we learn gratitude?
Academic researchers have explored this question, and the results have been startling. In study after study, subjects who were compelled to express gratitude showed improved mental and physical health. They slept better, were happier in their romantic lives, and felt less anxiety and depression.
That sounded good to me. So I took the advice of Robert A. Emmons, a professor at the University of California, Davis, and one of the pioneers in the emergent field of gratitude studies: I started keeping a gratitude journal.
Frankly, I’ve never been much of a journal guy. (I’m more of a falls-asleep-while-writing-in-a-journal guy.) But the Emmons regimen was easy. All I had to do was note five things per week for which I was grateful. Week one was full of gimmes: three children, an awesome wife, good health. By week four, my list had become more particular and precise:
I’m grateful for the way the sun shines on [my two-year-old] Rosalie’s beautiful light brown hair, and the way she laughs when she bounces on my belly.
I’m grateful that I live in a country where my twin brother can love whomever he wants without fear of legal discrimination.
I’m grateful for the sweet, tiny tomatoes ripening on our backyard ridge.
It wasn’t that my life was any different. I was just paying much closer attention to the blessings within it.
One immediate byproduct was that I found myself wanting to thank people. This was a little awkward at first. My pal Ben responded to my earnest declaration of gratitude for his friendship by shaking his head and muttering, “What’s wrong with you, man?” But for the most part, people liked being thanked, acknowledged, not taken for granted. It made them happier too.
The journal also helped me recognize how much the struggle for gratitude has to do with self-esteem. I began to see that the complaints I turned against the world – about how selfish and petty the place was – arose from my own challenges and anxieties. When I went on social media, for example, I wasn’t doing so to connect with far-flung friends. I was surveying the accomplishments and airbrushed lives of others, which, more often than not, made me feel envious and underachieving. In the process, I was losing perspective on how blessed my life is.
I drastically reduced my time on the Internet. But more important, I wrote a journal entry that read: In a world where so many people have no work, or work simply to survive, I’m grateful to have work that feeds my soul, as well as my family.
Six weeks into my gratitude experiment, I faced what I guess you might call a trial by fire. Toward the end of a long visit with my aging parents in California, the giant oak tree that looms over their backyard came crashing down. It turned out that a broken pipe had been gushing water underground. We had to shut off the water in the house for three days while a fleet of repairmen descended with loud, high-powered equipment.
I suppose I should mention that my mother was in the midst of receiving chemotherapy, and that I have three small children who had been away from home for nearly a month by that point.
It was, shall we say, a trying time for everyone involved. Something as elemental as going to the bathroom required filling gallon jugs from the pool to replenish the toilet tank. Bathing meant schlepping to the YMCA for a shower. The kids immediately picked up on the adult agitation and began fighting like wolves.
My wife suggested, quite reasonably, that we go stay in a hotel. I felt it was important to stick around to support my folks, who were quietly reeling. By all indications, we were preparing to fight like wolves.
Before we could go there, I excused myself and took a walk around the block. I forced my mind to focus on my journal. Here’s what I wrote when I returned home:
I’m grateful no kids were nearby when the oak tree fell.
I’m grateful for the many gifts of indoor plumbing.
I’m grateful my wife is fond enough of my family to visit them for extended periods of time.
I’m grateful for the love of my parents and that modern medicine has been able to help my mom battle cancer.
I could have kept going. I was grateful for the pool out back, in which the kids frolicked for hours every day. I was grateful for modern air travel. I was grateful for the juicy plums of California, for its mild sun and gentle breezes. I was grateful for the moment, toward the end of a chaotic family picnic, that my son launched himself at his uncle Dave and hugged him fiercely.
I’m sure all this looks pretty hokey in print.
But the alternative is a mindset in which we trudge through our days focused on the reliable anguish of our disappointments, unwilling to risk the seemingly sentimental gifts of gratitude, and therefore – this is, to me, the saddest thing of all – unable to see the true nature of our lives.
Gratitude isn’t some self-help gimmick, in other words. It’s the voice of that old man next to me on that flight to Israel, someone wiser than me, murmuring in my ear, urging me to acknowledge the miracles manifest in my own life.
It’s the recognition that every life, if properly valued, becomes a promised land.
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