Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gratitude: a Necessity

When I started my blog a little over a year ago, my first post of substance was about gratitude. You can read the whole thing, but the gist of it was that it's not natural for us to be grateful. We tend to take for granted everything that goes right and spend most of our time trying to improve and fix the problems, whether real or imaginary. It's not bad, necessarily, because it motivates up to aim higher and work harder, but appreciation for what we do have is also a requirement for a truly fulfilling life.

There exists a type of person almost pathologically incapable of gratitude, and we seem to have more of them lately. From an overpaid feminist professor decrying the patriarchy to a successful musician disappointing his fans to make a political statement to an athlete denigrating the country that offered him fame and fortune, new examples appear on a nearly daily basis.

The phenomenon of ingratitude, of taking gifts for granted and spitting at those who provide them is far from recent and not unique to wealthy Western nations. It is, in fact, old and universal enough to have been immortalized by a Russian 19th Century poet in a tale of The Fisherman and the Golden Fish.

For those unwilling to struggle through the valiant yet clunky attempt at a translation, it's a story of a poor Fisherman who catches a magical golden fish. In exchange for sparing her life, the fish offers the man anything he desires. At first, being kindly and humble, he simply lets the fish go. However, his wife repeatedly forces him to make ever more extravagant demands, with predictable results.

On its face, the tale cautions against greed and pride. But the character of the Fisherman's Wife is all too familiar. Her first request is modest (a new wash-tub), and even the second is understandable (a nicer house). But the more she receives, the more unhappy, demanding, and cruel she becomes.

Why is that? Do the newfound material possessions make her dissatisfied? Does she subconsciously miss poverty? More likely, she simply didn't have the ability to appreciate what was given to her. Every new gift only brought on the thoughts of what she was still lacking, and she kept asking for more, meeting no resistance, no indication that there might be a limit.

But of course, whether in fairy tales or in life, there is always a limit. Whether it's a magical benefactor or luck or true productive ability, there is only so much tangible success available to us within a lifetime. On the other hand, the amount of satisfaction and joy we achieve is very much ours to decide. The difference between happiness and misery very often comes from appreciating what one already has.

Can gratitude be learned? Perhaps. As a counter-example to the tale above, there is a Jewish joke that has been a favorite in my family. It tells of a poor Jew who comes to the Rabbi to complain about his small house. The Rabbi tells the man to buy a goat and bring it inside for a month, then get rid of it. Needless to say, after the month is up, the man appreciates all the "extra" space in the house and stops complaining.

Most people experience something similar throughout their lives: an event so traumatic that normalcy seems like a gift. Cancer survivors know of what I speak, as does everyone who watched the towers collapse on 9/11. Just living seems enough. Having family and friends around feels like a luxury. Yet it doesn't last. After a while, we start taking it all for granted again and seek more. However, any time we start to feel low, we can look back and say, "Today is not so bad, for I had been through worse. And thank goodness for that."

That is one way to learn gratitude. Another is to look around and see those less fortunate than us, whether in this country or around the world, not to feel guilty and self-disgusted as some activists would have us do, but to appreciate how rare our "normal" really is. Another is through religion. As a relative newcomer to religion, I was quite surprised how many prayers center around thanks. After all we usually think of prayer as a request rather than an expression of gratitude, but clearly the two go together.

Whatever the path to gratitude, it is my hope that more people in this world find it, for is not just a societal convention we learn as children under the umbrella of good manners. It's more, even, than a form of repayment to those who help us as we face the challenges of life. Fundamentally, it's a key to lasting happiness, available to all just for the asking.

The choice for the appropriate music video was between Martina McBride and this. Sorry, Martina.