“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more.” —Melody Beattie
I write today in praise of failure. It’s time to embrace loss, give disappointment and regret a big high-five, and bestow a warm hug on frustration and fear. For without loss, failure, and regret, how would we ever learn how to appreciate peace, enlightenment, and serenity?
It’s high time to fist-bump gratitude.
Are you disappointed that I want to praise gratitude? It’s true that gratitude is really an antique notion, old-fashioned in our world of immediate (if not sooner) gratification. Gratitude is what most parents nagged us about when we were teenagers mortified by our wardrobes or despising our dinners. “At least you have shoes! Think of all the hungry children in the world!” While we probably didn’t end up feeling more grateful, we might feel guilty, but that’s not terribly productive or positive.
Sure, gratitude isn’t glitzy. It’s not a bucket of cash or newfound celebrity. It’s a quiet gift, not found in a store or online. Gratitude is located only within. And the hardest sell regarding gratitude is that it usually comes via experiences—and not very good ones, at that.
Recently I was in my car, in Los Angeles, driving to teach a private art class. Lost in a detour maze caused by the ceaseless construction on the freeway system, I grew deeply frustrated because I am notoriously early for everything and loathe being late. The radio was on, and the news relentlessly spewed stories of just how awful things are out there. As if I needed reminding.
I was about to snap the radio off in frustration when a story came on about gratitude. A woman writer was discussing how keeping a gratitude journal had changed her life. The concept of having to come up with 100 things a day to be grateful for floored me. But since I was stuck in traffic and not getting anywhere soon, I started reciting aloud what I was grateful for.
Sure, I was late and lost, but my stress level dropped, and my brain was soothed by the exercise of naming all the things in my life I am grateful for. Admittedly, by the end of my list of 100 things, I was grateful for my hair, working legs, and tea in my travel mug, but the mere act of reminding myself of all the little blessings and mercies I had taken for granted until this very moment became its own reward. My final thing to be grateful for was being lost—because if I had been on time to my class, I wouldn’t have heard the story about gratitude.
Of course, I write about gratitude from a first-world perspective. I am writing this in a warm home, with a warm, new(-ish) computer, a nice mug of tea and snack nearby. We have much to be grateful for in our country, yet all around me I see confusion, anger, denial, and greed.
As our lives speed up, the urge to consume grows: We crave food we don’t need, clothing we may never wear, the latest technology, relentless Facebook updates, and the next American Idols. We drown in credit card-itis due to a compulsion to spoil ourselves because of all we do, how hard we work, and how much we give. Yet we all carry around these black holes of need that we urgently try to fill with things. But as the bumper sticker says, “The best things in life aren’t things.” (Sad but true that most of my inspirational reading comes from sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the 405.)
The truest treasures are, ironically, to be gleaned from the hardship, humility, and loss that we cannot escape in day-to-day living. My older brother, Phillip, is severely autistic and has never spoken. Our parents have passed away, so I am his conservator. I do not state this to garner empathy or to guilt anyone into being grateful that they are NOT me. It is simply one of the facts of my life.
And while my reality might fill another person with dread, I am truly and humbly grateful for my brother and what he teaches me every day. His world may be small (compared to the rest of us) and more routine-oriented than most, but it is the very simplicity of his routines that provides a great source of comfort to us both. We hang out and make cupcakes and collaborate on art. My home is filled with my brother’s needlepoints that I designed for him. I’ve befriended the families of his housemates, and finding like-minded and wonderful people who know exactly how my life feels is immeasurably gratifying. Having my brother in my life has deepened my well of patience and empathy and made me sensitive to the needs of those I might otherwise try to avoid.
If I could be anything in the world, I’d love to be a gratitude fairy. I’d walk around the mall and gently bop people bogged down with bags and iPhones and Androids on the head with my magic wand. All I’d want to impart to them is the gift of gratitude. If we all took the time every day to list (in no particular order) what we are grateful for, we’d realize that we already have everything we think we need.
As a friend who had just gotten over two weeks of flu recently said, “I just learned that happiness is the absence of want.” She was so grateful to no longer be sick that she was almost unrecognizable, beaming as she was with health and newfound serenity.
Of course, gratitude alone won’t make us less hungry. We need clothes and food and shelter and other people to complete our lives. But there are graces to be found in hardship, winnings to be scraped out of losses, and valuable lessons to be gleaned from heartbreak. Imagine how a single, daily dose of gratitude would impact advertising, fashion magazines, and endless television commercials. We’d probably even save money on gas if we found what we were seeking was already lurking within our own quietly beating hearts.
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