Gratitude, like forgiveness, is something we pay lip service to but struggle with in practice.
It’s one of those things, as I like to say, that’s simple…but not easy.
Today, Thanksgiving here in America, is a day where we’re supposed to take the time to think about what we’re grateful for. And the candidates are usually pretty obvious: We should be grateful for our families, for our health (especially through a pandemic), that we live in a time of peace (the first Thanksgiving America has not been at war in 21 years), for the food laid out in front of us. All the usual suspects.
I agree, these are important things to recognize and appreciate. It’s also good to have a specific day dedicated to that occasion. So by all means, celebrate.
But what about all the other stuff in the world?
The obstacles. The frustrations. The stresses and difficulties of life. The people that wronged you. The haters. The dilemmas. The bad days.
The writer Jorge Luis Borges said:
A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.
Or as my mentor Robert Greene once told me,
It’s all material.
He means that everything that happens in your life can be turned into something useful, whether it’s your writing, your relationships, or your new startup. You probably wouldn’t have chosen for things to go wrong–just like no one would choose any of those things on the list of current events above–but they came anyway. Now the question is, how are you going to think about them?
Are you going to think about what you don’t like? What you resent or fear or hate? Or are you going to find the good in them, what you can use in them, what you can be grateful for in them?
In the mornings when I sit down to journal, one of the notebooks I write in is a gratitude journal. When I first got it, I would fill the pages with all the stuff I liked about the stuff I liked. But after a time, this came to feel sort of pointless and rather repetitive. Now what I do is try to find ways to express gratitude, not for the things that are easy to be grateful for, but for what is hard.
- Gratitude for that nagging pain in my leg
- Gratitude for that troublesome client
- Gratitude for the challenges of the pandemic
- Gratitude for that delayed flight
- Gratitude for that damage from the storm
Because each one was an opportunity. Because I learned from it. Because it reminded me of what was actually important. Because it’s allowed me to see how lucky I am. Because I became a better person for it.
Every situation has two handles, the Stoics would say. Which one will you grab?
As Cicero explains, “you may say that deaf men miss the pleasure of hearing a lyre-player’s songs. Yes, but they also miss the squeaking of a saw being sharpened, the noise a pig makes when its throat is being cut, the roaring thunder of the sea which prevents other people from sleeping.”
In the chaos and dysfunction of the world, I try to notice where I have been gifted in the latter category than where I have been deprived in the former.
Besides, it’s already happened…what’s the use in getting upset?
“Let us accept it,” Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself in his journal, “as we accept what the doctor prescribes. It may not always be pleasant, but we embrace it —because we want to get well.” He could have been talking about the pandemic of his times, the stresses of his job or the children he had buried. He could have been talking of his own ill-health, the bad weather, or the noise of the city’s streets. We don’t know, we just know that whatever it was, he was trying to find a way to say thank you for it, to be grateful for it. “Convince yourself that everything is the gift of the gods,” Marcus said, “that things are good and always will be.”
So as you gather around your family and friends this Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other celebration you might partake in, of course, appreciate it and give thanks for all the obvious and bountiful gifts that moment presents. Just make sure that when the moment passes, as you go back to your everyday, ordinary life, that you make gratitude a regular part of it. Again—not simply for what is easy and immediately pleasing. That comes naturally enough, and may even go without saying.
What is in more desperate need of appreciation and perspective are the things you never asked for, the things you worked hard to prevent from happening in the first place. Because that’s where gratitude will make the biggest difference and where we need the most healing.
Whatever it is. However poorly it went. However difficult the last few years have been for you.
Be grateful for it. Give thanks for it. There was good within it.
Write it down. Over and over again.
Until you believe it.