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Gratitude: A Reflection

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Surely gratitude has more depth than the surface words we use -- the please and thank yous that seem incidental, our polite acknowledgement, even if unconsciously processed, of our dependence on each other. There is likely no dishonesty here, at least not intentionally, and for whatever they are worth, these declarations may be incentives on some level to move more deeply into the experience, as tossing a pebble into a pond on a hot summer day may connote the possibility of plunging in oneself and cooling the skin. Such rituals matter. We may not feel it much when we say thank you as a form of polite redress. But consider the following possible situation.

Say you let a driver in your lane, an act of random politeness for which you congratulate yourself, and your act is not acknowledged -- no nod, no wave, and suddenly this lack of superficial politesse means you are being taken advantage of even though no one asked you to let the car and driver in.

In fact, we decide the other driver has both moral and intellectual deficits and deep character flaws in addition to bad manners. Social psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error -- which is to say that we tend to excuse our own bad behavior with an appeal to circumstance while automatically attributing bad behavior to character flaws in others (never mind circumstances).

I mention this because the two dispositions -- 1) To be grateful for what one has, and 2) to seek to judge and blame others -- seem to be in contradistinction with each other. The more my focus is on another person and what their merits and deficits are, the less likely I am to see myself clearly. Moreover, the less we are inclined to compare ourselves with others and judge others, the more likely we are to partake of genuine gratitude.

This is important because if there is one thing that ancient wisdom traditions agree with modern psychological science on, it is that the more grateful you are, the happier you are.

The Comparing Mind

Comparing ourselves with others is not an act in isolation, or something that we may just do on occasion, but it's rather an entire perspective on existence and life. It's something we often do on an unconscious level, and as such it is a byproduct of an undisciplined mind, or at best, it is an example of behaviors with motives of which we are unaware. And yet, it leads to immense consequences.

For many of us, comparing ourselves with others is a way to divert attention from ourselves. We do not do this to divert the attention of other people away from us, necessarily, but to evade our own attention! We do not want to see ourselves as we truly are. There may be numerous reasons for this, depending on our own individual situations. To compare ourselves with other people therefore becomes a way to create a false self, someone with whom we think we can feel comfortable, someone more interested or less selfish than the ego, the "I", who is the true self at the deepest level of personality.

Perhaps we do not want to be responsible because we are afraid, usually of death, even though it is a false selfhood and not our true selves who would die. Inauthentic dreams, poor ambitions, seeking happiness in empty wells -- these things would end if our false selves perish, and we cling to these things as a child clings to a pacifier. We do not realize that only through letting go of comparisons can our true selves begin to emerge, our true calling can become clear, and our lives can be suffused with the joy of deep meaning and purpose -- purpose that far exceeds that of getting the next paycheck or merely enjoying pleasure. It is often pleasure itself we must strive against before we can ever become who we really are, and in a culture where not only whole lifestyles, but identity is built around pleasure, this can be exceedingly difficult.

So we divert our own attention from ourselves and embrace falsehoods, hoping that at some point they will somehow come true, the gods will bless us, and we will suddenly find the happiness we seek in pleasure, comfort, money, religion, a relationship, a job or any other number of vehicles that ultimately cannot of themselves provide for us that one thing we are seeking.

The way we evade discovery is through comparing ourselves with others in order to blame others for our own problems, or shame ourselves into an identity of despair, which offers its own strange comforts as well. We inflate our self esteem by deciding we are better than others, or deflate our sense of responsibility by presuming we are inferior to others.

If we are better than others, they are at fault when we suffer -- it is always another person's incompetence, another person's carelessness, another person's meanness or stupidity that causes us harm. We may have bouts of bad faith and false gratitude, exemplified by the publican who thanked God that he was not like this vile sinner standing not far from him. Deep pride, which is the instrument which resists authentic self-knowledge, is at the root of blame. If we are angry, another person has made us so. We are not responsible for our own emotions. If we drug ourselves in order to qualm our rage, it remains the fault of others; we are merely self-medicating due to the injuries others have caused. If we are successful, we despise those who are not, although there is no rational reason for doing so.

On the other side of the coin, if we believe we are inferior to others and our behaviors define us (the definition of shame), so that we do bad things because we feel we are bad people. We also miss the mark and resist responsibility. How can one be responsible if she is damaged goods and can do nothing but wrong?

Ted Burgess, a social worker and friend whom I have known since junior high school, pointed out to me during conversations a few years ago that most of us do not live entirely in one camp or another, but tend to creep back and forth between blame and shame like the swing of a pendulum.

This doesn't of course mean that we do not notice the character qualities of others. One of the primary ways to becomes more of who we are is to recognize virtues in other people, which can only happen if they are seeds we have in ourselves, and emulate those whom we admire. But there is no blame or shame involved in this aspect of awareness at all.

Real gratitude is one way to break the spell of the blaming and shaming, and direct us back towards the source of happiness which can only be discovered in finding out who we really are.

Am I Grateful for What I Am Given?

As I reflect upon the occasions when I have been truly grateful, it seems to me that there are at least two dimensions at play. I have been grateful to others for what they have done for me, but not to everyone who deserves to be thanked by me. Children usually take their parents for granted, for instance, and parents generally do not expect their children when they are small to be grateful for who they are and what they have been given.

This tells me that being grateful is something that has to be cultivated; and like something that is cultivated, is an energy or force which we take part in and that doesn't originate within us. We plant seeds in a garden, water it, plant it in good soil in a place that gets sunlight, but we don't cause the plant to grow and eventually bear fruit. Gratitude likely works in a similar fashion. It is perhaps an act of grace to be truly grateful, and all it takes to be a saint is to say thank you to someone for a simple act and be able to really mean it.

I recall being grateful to the point of tears and deeply moved when I was about 12-years-old because my mother, of all things, bought me some pens from the office supply store where she worked. I have often been grateful to the few friends I have had who have listened to me during difficult times, and to others who have helped me through periods of transition that resulted from my own foolishness, and did so without blaming me or seeking to make me feel ashamed. So in one sense, there is a dimension of gratitude that is expressed when we recognize that we are dependent on others. This is of course a central truth that is pertinent to our own humanity and personhood. As long as we believe we are in isolation, the self can only compare itself with others, which ends in delusion. Being grateful for other people is an act of gratitude that leads us back to our true selves.

I'm reminded of the story about Jesus that describes the time he healed ten lepers by telling them to go and bathe in the river. Ten of them go and are healed, but only one of them returns and thanks him for being healed. Why did nine of the lepers not bother to return and thank Jesus for the miracle of their healing? When we compare ourselves with others, we come to believe that we deserve what others have. Perhaps the nine who did not return believed that they deserved to be healed and therefore did not return to thank Jesus. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourouzh believes this is the case, as he writes:

Isn't it true that gratitude springs up in our hearts more powerfully, more gloriously when what we receive is undeserved, when it is a miracle of divine and human love? When we think that we deserve something and receive it, we receive it as our due; so did the nine Jews. But the Samaritan knew he had no right to the mercy of God, no right to this miracle of healing, and his heart was filled with gratitude.

Does this not apply to us? Indeed, it does! Indeed it does so sadly, because all of us do feel that we have a right: a right to human concern, to human love, a right to everything which the earth and human relationships can give, ultimately, a right for God's care and love for us. And therefore, when we receive a gift we are superficially grateful, we say a perfunctory "thank you," but it does not transform our relationship, either to God or to those who have been merciful to us. We receive it as our due, and we are grateful to those who were instrumental in conveying to us what "naturally" we had a right to have.

To the extent that we believe that we deserve the things that we have, or even the things we do not have and that other people have which we covet, we cannot experience deep gratitude. And it is my experience that for this reason, we cannot experience joy, which is the happiness that stems from becoming our true selves, and should be distinguished from passing pleasures.

Are We Grateful for Life Itself?

I have more often felt gratitude, even when enmeshed in the most difficult circumstances, for the experience of being alive. To be a living animal, breathing and experiencing consciousness, is deadened when we take it for granted. Such ingratitude is at the root of modern boredom, which is another way we avoid the reality of our truest selves. We claim boredom because the self is buried beneath layers of desire. We want to stimulate ourselves as if merely being alive and experiencing our own existence needs a little extra umph to make it worthwhile.

Of course, we suffer. And there is no reason to be grateful for evil. When we are in pain, we need not see it as a gift, even if it eventually transforms us.

But we often fail to recognize that if the gift of life was not good and valuable, our suffering would not really be evil. It would be meaningless and par for the course. When we are hurt or hurting, there is a reason why it is tragic and why our experience of pain contains meaning. There is a reason why most people are outraged by the abuse of children. These acts violate a reality that we all know innately: existence is a good thing. Life is a good gift. If there was no value in it, there would be no reason to react to suffering, either of others of our own. Recognizing this may also ignite gratitude, even when we are angry, in pain, suffering from sickness or loss, or feel dead or injured inside. The trick is to find a handle on this as a means of being grateful, even if gratitude arises out of an awareness of immediate experience (which can be a powerful tool to cultivate) rather than to allow evil circumstances to control us.

What Are You Grateful For?

Becoming aware of our interdependency as well as of all the things for which we can be grateful is a beginning toward cultivating deep gratitude, which is a path towards experiencing the joy of becoming who we really are.

Take a moment to reflect and share what you are grateful for in the comment section below. And please feel free to "Like" my Facebook Page as well.