The appearance of a larger-than-life hero, shaman, guru or healer to rescue us from our disorienting despair is a persistent theme in most faith traditions. Instead of discovering the inner spunk to repair and rebirth our intentions, we search the skies for a savior. I am convinced that filling the holes in our hearts -- from disappointment, postponed dreams or profound loss -- begins with gratitude, not surrender. In opening the lens to the gifts around us, surprises abound.
One of the most powerful memories of my childhood was the empty chair at the end of our dining room table. After my father died when I was 14, my mother, sister and I tried to fill our small table with one another's company, but the image of the lone chair was a constant reminder of the emptiness around us. With my wife's sudden death two years ago, more empty chairs filled in my home and heart. I'm not alone. Our media overdoses us with holiday stories of tragic war deaths and sad homecomings to more empty chairs, and the lengthening shadows of memory they bring.
Now we step into a new holiday season, flush with the reminders of our year. Despite record unemployment, uneven economic news, and the prevailing clouds of seemingly endless war and loss, mass audiences continue to devour 24/7 coverage of the next Sarah Palin gaff, the winner of "Dancing with the Stars" or the ascension of a newly anointed 14-year old teen idol. However diverting this popcorn of "news" is to our larger attention, this is a rough season for many people.
Novelist David Grossman found his way back to life after the death of his son by writing, something I deeply understand. He recently reflected that "writing was the only way to return from the exile of everything you knew, the story of your life. In loss, you don't belong to anything. Nothing can be taken for granted. For me, writing was my way of making sense of the chaos, for in finding the right word, I found a way of choosing life."
I write each morning at 6 a.m., before my day really begins, to invite possibility into what's next. My morning ritual reminds me of the wisdom that is around us, if we can only ask. And to be even more grateful for what we receive.
All of us are finding our way to something ahead of us. I suggest the wisest way to make the glow of holiday celebration last is to express gratitude for the life we have, and to deeply acknowledge our grateful feelings to everyone who touches our life.
Researchers confirm that feeling grateful brings more lasting energy, greater optimism, and more authentic social connections. Some studies confirm that grateful people make more money, sleep more deeply and have greater resistance to illness. Psychologist Jeffrey Froh of Hofstra University reminds us that "a lot of these findings are things we learned in kindergarten or our grandmothers told us," but now science gives us permission to believe them. In fact, ancient philosophers reminded us that gratitude was an indispensable human virtue. Cicero wrote, "A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues."
This year, perhaps in response to the many generous friends who persist in providing updraft to my daily life, I have consciously begun some new daily rituals of acknowledging and appreciating the people who help me. I make it a point to thank each person, from the smiling barista at Starbucks to my newspaper delivery man, and in small ways express how much I appreciate them. My new mantra when people ask how I am is, "Better now that you're here." And I mean it.
There's a wise Buddhist exercise, called Naikan self-reflection, that invites us to ponder each day: "What have I received from ... ? What have I given to ... ? Who made me laugh? Whom have I troubled and need to ask forgiveness for my actions?"
Mindfulness of how we are with others is only part of the acknowledgment process. How are we to ourselves? What is our own self-talk? How critical or forgiving are we of our actions, intentions, gaffs and lapses? How much time do we spend judging others, as well as own faults? No wonder we can slip into darker moods, indulge in that extra slice of pie or glass of wine, all to soften and stuff our sadness. Instead, being grateful for your life, your family, your friends, will help lift your holiday spirits in an authentic way. When we step away from judging and instead celebrate in large and small ways the precious moments of our life, we experience a sense of gratitude that can boost everyone's positive emotions.
The empty chairs of intention and attention -- to everyone in our life -- beg to be filled. It's not as lonely anymore. It begins by being grateful and acknowledging all who make your life better.
This year I thank my dear friends, our wise children, my clients, my partners, my students, colleagues, audiences and readers for their generous spirits and patience with me when I may have forgotten a birthday, or wasn't the best friend I could be when they needed me. I work hard at not letting that happen, but at times I lapsed. I know. I will be better.
I deeply acknowledge how each of you helped me shape a new life in another important year, one in which I somehow slipped into 70. How did that happen?
I am committed to a 2011 where each of you will feel that I am "better now that you're here." Because I am. Whether with a whisper or a hug, know that I thank you. I won't wait until the game is called for darkness for you to know how much you mean to me.