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Practicing Gratitude

 

I’ve been thinking about grumpy people a lot. There are a lot of grumpy people in the world. I think to myself, why are these people so grumpy? Don’t they realize that just makes everybody else grumpy? Grumpiness is more contagious than a cold.

I’ve been thinking a lot about people who complain a lot. Some people are only happy, it seems, when they are noticing what’s wrong with something. These people drive me so crazy it makes me complain about them. And about what they are complaining about.

I’ve been thinking a lot about people who criticize a lot. I see myself in this group, too, but I think most of my criticism is unfortunately self-directed: I’m lazy. I’m not nice. I cry too much.

I think about people who are always outraged about something. These are the kinds of people who, whether it pertains to things little or big, political or spiritual, public or private, find a way to be outraged. And vocal. Just turn on WGY at any time of the day and you’ll see what I mean.

I’ve been thinking about how grumpy, complaining, critical and outraged people handle Thanksgiving. I mean, do they come to the dinner table sullen, disappointed that the cranberry sauce is canned, vexed that their partner could say something so stupid and outraged that the turkey wasn’t free range?

Or do they put on a game face and get through the required gratitude of Thanksgiving Day, pleased that the next day is Black Friday, which is an ideal kind of day for grumpy, complaining, critical, outraged people?

At the annual Schenectady multi-faith Thanksgiving service, I heard a rabbi say that it is part of Jewish tradition to be aware of one hundred things you are grateful for. Not just on Thanksgiving, but every day. And she didn’t mean just general thanksgiving of the “oh, I’m grateful for my family” sort, but specific thanks, thanks for things of which you were gratefully aware. She called them the “Oh, wow” moments.

Cool, I thought. Oprah only wanted people to write down three things each day.

As I was walking back to my car I got inspired. I started noticing things I was grateful for—the sun on the Japanese maple tree leaves, my new green gloves, the ringing bells of Nott Memorial Chapel.

But immediately the flaws in the idea of an “Oh, wow” list became apparent. I got distracted by the notion of record-keeping. How in hell are you supposed to keep track? I mean, you can’t just stop and write each thing down as you notice it. I mean, what if you’re on the Thruway and this great song comes on the radio that you haven’t heard in a long time and you’re grateful about that? What are you supposed to do, dictate your gratitude?

Then I realized that I was guilty of the very thing I can’t stand in some kinds of Christians: literalism. The point wasn’t to count to one hundred! The point was to be in the moment, to be aware, as constantly as you can, of where you are and what is good about the moment. I can assure you that I am almost constantly aware of what is wrong with me, the world, the ones I love, etc. Trying to find good things seems like more of a challenge.

Still, the idea of 100 “oh, wows” piqued my interest, and I decided to give it a try. Since I’m a gratitude novice, I planned to limit myself to 50 “oh, wow” moments and see how long it would take me to get there.

I started my list at 12:21.

By 12:53 I was out of gratitude. And I’d only made it to 35.

I had started with the trio I noticed yesterday walking back to my car.

 

1. The sun in the Japanese maple tree

2. My new green gloves

3. The ringing bells of Nott Memorial Chapel

 

Other obvious things followed, things like my feather bed and hot baths and sweet potatoes with butter and salt. It’s not too hard to become aware and grateful for the stuff that arouses your senses.

Then things got a little tricky. If I wow-ed about something I was grateful for in a loved one, a half-dozen of their little annoyances also came to mind. If I wow-ed about the bread and wine at communion on Sunday, a handful of frustrations and dissatisfactions with other areas of my job presented themselves.

I think if I had been making a concomitant list of things that aggravated me, I’d easily have reach a hundred by now. The tendency to criticize myself, berate myself, find fault with others, notice what’s wrong, or invent things that are wrong seems second nature. That’s a sobering recognition, but I guess it’s also a liberating one. Gratitude isn’t second nature. It needs cultivation.

And here’s the other thing I realized. I’ve always had a beef with the idea of Thanksgiving. I always had a kind of self-righteous attitude—you know, do we really need a day to remind us to be grateful? But if my experience with my not-yet-50 “oh, wows” is any indication, I guess we do.

I’m thinking of bringing my unfinished list to the Thanksgiving dinner table. Maybe, if we all participate, we can make it to one hundred. I’d be grateful for that.

—Jo Page

jopage@graceniska.org


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