How to be Grateful

Searching for Gratitude

How to be grateful? At the end of this post the question will be answered for me. But to begin at the beginning... I’m writing from my seat on an airplane at the Burlington Vermont airport. This morning I drove from my home in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, on the other side of the state. The plane has been on the tarmac now for over half an hour, waiting for permission to take off. This will happen when air traffic control in New York says there is enough air space for us to land. Inside the small jet airspace is limited. It’s stuffy, the low ceiling making it more comfortable to sit in the tiny cramped seat than to stand. In any case, the flight attendant has asked us to remain seated. The double cappuccino I enjoyed before boarding is instructing me to do otherwise. Where were we, ah yes, gratitude. Many have written about the power of giving thanks.  Counting blessings yields improvements in mood, health, and efficacy. According to pundits and backed by scientific studies, once we figure out how to be grateful, there will be more to be grateful for.

But I’m Not Grateful

But what if, having thought it over, you realize that you’re not quite ready for gratitude. Take my parents. Both are alive and reasonably well. I love them, but if I was pushed to articulate appreciation for them, depending on my mood, it might start with “thanks for having me when you were so young”. (My Dad was 20, my mom 24). Then I might add: “thank you for splitting up when Tony (my brother) and I were still kids.” The split was just a few years later. And then, “thank you both for being so self-involved!” Probably enough said. If we are honest with ourselves, exploring gratitude often reveals where we are less than grateful. In fact, reflecting on our past may arouse resentment rather than anything like a good feeling. Instead of gratitude, when I think of my childhood, I feel sad. While there is love and civility in my family relationships, reflecting on my childhood still arouses feelings of loneliness and youthful insecurity. Good grief! as my Dad would say. Is this tender and sad feeling gratitude? It’s not something you’ll read in the preface of a new book or what you expect to hear at the Oscars. I am grateful, however, for the ability to be honest with myself and to accept the past as I understand it.

Learn to Say Thank You

As for childhood, the suggestion to be grateful may trigger memories of “thank you’s” required when we were children. As an entitled eight-year old, I begrudged thank you’s when claiming the comic book that was rightfully mine or while staring down an unsolicited serving of broccoli. Older now but still resistant, I wonder: How is gratitude not a kind of social conditioning or spiritual bypassing? Sure, it feels good to be grateful. But when is the cultivation of gratitude simply another attempt to feel better about our world and ourselves, turning us away from real wrongs and real wounds? And when is our effort to appreciate driven, at least in part, by our own insecurity?

Guilt or Gratitude?

Gratitude can be tricky. If we have enjoyed privilege due to our race, wealth, social standing or country of origin, this afforded us opportunities that others didn’t have. What does it mean to be grateful for what we have received when others suffered to make that possible? This contemplation may be uncomfortable, rousing feelings of regret or even guilt. My parents, by today’s reckoning, were children of privilege who made the best of their opportunities. Why wouldn’t they? And, in spite of their parental challenges, they raised my brother and me with an appreciation for beauty, reason, decency and justice. Have I ever thanked them for that? Now I think I should. At the same time, systems of oppression trap everyone, the oppressor and the oppressed. My parents inherited the benefits and burdens of privilege. These would have been passed along as well. How to be grateful? Conventional gratitude arises from a context. If we're in our car cruising south on an open highway and the northbound lane is clogged and crawling, are we not grateful? Finding ourselves on the top of the world, we have much to be thankful for.  But the “top” of the world only makes sense when you consider the rest of the world at the “bottom.”

The Gift of Gratitude

Gratitude feels natural when appreciation is easy. Suppose we receive an unexpected and welcome gift. Maybe someone pays our bill, or take us on a trip we’ve always wanted to make. Wonderful! But what are we grateful for, exactly? There is the gift itself, the giver who gave it, the feeling behind it, the timing of the gift, the way it was given and our ability to receive it. Where should our gratitude go? When we try to focus on where and how to be grateful, the object of our gratitude dissolves into pieces. It’s elusive. Instead of a gift, perhaps we get something we don’t want. Maybe we received harsh and negative feedback. The feedback compels us to self-reflect. Facing ourselves directly, nakedly, questioning our own actions and motivation, we grow. Can we feel grateful for the experience of growth, but not for how it happened? Is the gift of gratitude always a mixed emotion?

When to Say “Thank You”

Learning how to be grateful is in tension with a seductive pastime—complaining. Generally, we feel that something is missing. Something is not quite right. When we finally get the cocoa for our cappuccino, we say “thank you” with a certain tone and emphasis, reminding the waiter how long we’ve been waiting. We all know how to say thank you, but when we do, we often mean something else. Perhaps this is learned behavior. As we saw, our childhood training in the obligatory ‘thank you’ emphasized the transactional. You got something. To honor what you received, a thank you was required. Thank you also meant you were worthy of the gift. This early conditioning may have solidified the idea that being grateful, and our own self-worth, is related to getting what we want. In this last case, gratitude ornaments a narrative that puts us at the center of our own universe.

A New Appreciation

Teachers of gratitude suggest an exercise: bring to mind a pet, a place in nature, a loving relationship. Begin with gratitude that is easy. Mull over our history, and find a highlight, a source of gratitude—a person, place, or favorite animal that has the power to engender appreciation. Appreciation and what we appreciate are, however, fickle and hard to predict. Without warning, one day we appreciate the beauty in the color of the aging bricks in the building across the street. Or we might notice the nobility in a face of an old friend. Seeing as if for the first time, we are unexpectedly moved. When, after many years, my wife returned to her village in France, she was struck by the beauty of her birthplace. When she was young and eager to leave, she hadn’t been able to see it.

How to Be Grateful

Being sensitive to everyday momentary experience, we connect with our world. We see with fresh eyes, hear with fresh ears. This sense of connection reveals our vulnerability. If we are present (training in meditation helps), experiences, both positive and negative, are allowed to touch us. In this web of connection we may feel our heart, but can we find our heart? When we appreciate a flower, where does our appreciation end and the flower begin? Flowers bloom and die. They have seasons. Could the same be true for our gratitude? I started this post feeling sad. Reflecting on my childhood, perhaps I was simply reminding myself that it was over. Gratitude happens in the moment, but each moment, like every childhood, is ending as soon as it begins. Perhaps that is the point: learning how to be grateful is not only about what we are grateful for. We can be grateful for the moment, saying “hello” to what each moment brings, but also, with gratitude, in each moment, we can learn how to say “goodbye”.

Blog Post-Script

This post began in an airport and that's where it ends. I started the post on my way out of Vermont for business meetings in New Jersey. Two days later, my meetings behind me, I was on my way home to Vermont. The post was completed waiting for my weather-delayed flight out of Newark International Airport. Newark airport has a reputation... So, before we go further, I have some people to thank, people to whom I feel deeply grateful:
  • First, the pilot who very honestly and plainly explained how the ice sensor malfunctioned, causing our plane leaving Newark to abort during take off in a snowstorm. He pulled off the runway quickly. The plane never took off and instead left us back at the gate.
  • The two United service associates who later in the evening printed two boarding passes for the two remaining planes to Burlington that night. It wasn’t their job but they did it anyway. My trip home was doomed, but they saved me hours of waiting in a Customer Service line.
  • The would-be fellow passenger who gave me a tender glance as I searched my pockets in vain for the second boarding pass. The earlier flight, in another terminal, had been just been cancelled. Without the boarding pass, I wouldn’t make it back to the last flight out. She knew this and it pained her.
  • The young man who explained that his taxi from midtown Manhattan, which should have taken half an hour, in the snow, had taken five hours. This helped me relax about trying to get out of the airport that night.
  • The young lady who came and sat near me on the floor of the baggage claim area as I lay stretched out on the linoleum with my carry on as my pillow. She was there to charge her phone in the wall socket. We said nothing, but between 2 AM and 4 AM, I was grateful for the low murmer of a human voice as she communed in Russian on a video call.
There are many more people I could thank. I don’t know their names or even their faces. But I am grateful for each interaction we shared.

I Don’t Mean to Complain

At the beginning of my journey home out of Newark, I was a self-satisfied blogger making the most of airport delays. By the end, jarred out of my comfort zone, 29 hours later, I was a shuffling zombie who needed something from everyone just to make it through the next moment: a smile from the person making coffee at the Dunkin Donuts in baggage claim, a helpful pointer from a United Associate about where to go for the better customer service (there was no better place, but still I appreciated the thought), the people next to me who were able to stand quietly for hours as we pondered our fate in an endless line. At each encounter, I felt gratitude. For a while, early in the night, after the last flight left, I sat dejected, facing the fact that I had no plan, no way forward, and that my own stupidity was to blame for much of my situation. Often, complaints are aimed at ourselves, and I was angry with how spacey I had been. Complaining, we could just as easily say blaming, is unsociable and unpleasant. But it’s impact is profound. Complaints separate us from our experience, the only thing we have. In the name of protecting us, they rob us, stealing our life out from under our nose. At the airport, I needed time to get over my frustration and unhappiness with my situation and myself. This took awhile. Once I let go of my complaint and forgave myself, I was better able to find the humor and beauty in each unhappy detail.

How to End a Blog Post

A key aspect of blogging, any self-respecting marketer will tell you, is to give the reader “News You Can Use.” By my own estimation, this is not my strong suit. Here, however, I want to tell you, from my own experience, how to be grateful. First, very simply, let go of the crazy idea that we don’t all need each other. The notion that we can somehow do this thing called life on our own. Second, Get uncomfortable! Move yourself to a place beyond the privileged position that life has given you. When you do, you will realize that, in each moment, we all need each other. This realization is how to be grateful.