That was a typical thing for parents like mine to say to kids like me as I poked at the mucoid vegetables on my plate.
“Think of the starving children in China.”
That saying failed utterly at its purpose. All it did was make me resent the alleged starving Chinese children as much as I resented being forced to eat snot. And the resentment was just getting warmed up. For the next few decades, when someone said something about how I should be grateful or thankful or whatever, I resented them for even suggesting such a thing. First, I always had lots of problems: work problems, money problems, car problems, friend problems, lover (or lack of lover) problems, etc. I kept track of and organized my problems. You want me to be thankful? Have you seen my list of problems lately?
Second, that’s just peachy that you’re so happy that you can sit around talking about how grateful and thankful you are. But if it’s all the same to you, how about if you just shut up already, all right?
It wasn’t until age 45 or so that I started to get it. I had figured out that being grateful for what is makes me much happier than longing for what isn’t. And I was ripe for more input on this matter. I read something by Thich Nhat Hahn at that time that stuck. In my words it goes like this…
Imagine yourself with a terrible toothache. Now picture yourself moments after the toothache goes away. “Thank goodness the pain is gone! I am so grateful right now that my tooth does not ache!” But why should I only be grateful for painless teeth for such a brief moment? Isn’t it equally wonderful every moment that my teeth don’t ache? Right now, for example, I am ache-free. I can be grateful for that.
What a brilliant idea. The logic resonated with me. If I could train myself to remember to be grateful for bad stuff that was missing from my life, I would have an infinite and ever-ready pool of gratitude to drink from.
And then there’s possessions, belongings, stuff. After decades of obsessing over what I didn’t have, I began to gradually improve my ability to appreciate and enjoy what I do have. This created thousands of opportunities to smile inside rather than frown.
Carrying that view beyond material things made way for adjustments like this one: I just lost a huge pot playing poker. Ouch! That hurts! Oh woe is me. I’m so unlucky. Life is so unfair. But wait, I don’t have to do that to myself anymore because I am learning gratitude. How fortunate I am to have the time and money to be able to play the game I love so much!
Then there’s the starving-children theory of gratefulness: “At least I’m not as bad off as [fill in the blank].” The Bible’s version, translated to secularity by me, goes like this: “There but for the grace of the universe go I.” I think this is a rational and useful way to transform a moment of discontentment into one of gratefulness. But it’s not my favorite. These days, my go-to reminder (and I need lots of reminders) is to recite these words in my mind:
On behalf of those who do not have what I have, I will appreciate this [fill in the blank].
For example, water. How many billions of people and animals and plants have craved that essential fluid, but were unable, in their moment of greatest need, to have it? I try to remember to stop, each time, before the water goes in, and say to myself, “On behalf of every organism that has or will experience a moment of desperate dehydration, I will appreciate this water.”
When I am able to put myself in that place, even over-cooked bland vegetables are delicious.
The ultimate landing place on this path is a phrase that I resisted strongly, just because it sounded hokey, and it was so over-worked: “Be grateful to be alive!”
Even that makes sense to me now. It isn’t so much that “I” am grateful that “I” am alive. It’s more like I am grateful that life itself happens to exist, and that I have by some amazing fluke happened to have temporarily sprung from it. In this case, the word “gratefulness” means about the same to me as “wow.”
I think of gratefulness now as an acquired skill, like say, playing guitar. There was a time I didn’t know how to do it. Then there was a time I began to learn how to do it. And now it’s a simple case of the more I do it, the better I get at it, and the better I get at it, the happier I am. And the happier I am, the happier the people around me are.
Which brings me to the title of this essay. On top of the stuff and people and experiences and health that I have that I can be grateful for, and on top of the infinite amount of bad stuff that I don’t have and haven’t experienced that I can grateful for, sits this new thing: I am grateful that I am learning how to be grateful.