I first noticed it entering and leaving the mall but it has now extended to most other venues. Sometime during the last couple of decades a common courtesy became rare – the courtesy of receiving a ‘thank you’ after holding the door open for the next person coming through.
I’m not sure why most people don’t say thank you: is it because we are preoccupied or too busy or too spoiled or haven’t been taught? At first it annoyed me and I determined to place a moratorium on my door-holding, but of course that is a very shallow, selfish thing to do so I kept on – thank you or no thank you.
Besides, I admit that I’m addicted to saying ‘thank you’: I say it for doors held open; I say it when Cheryl makes me a coffee; I say it to the clerk at the store; I say it when somebody passes the gravy. And wanna know something silly? I can’t NOT say thank you! It’s a habit that was ingrained in me beginning some time when I was very small that has continued until these advanced years through constant use and repetition.
According to Diana Butler Bass in her recent book Grateful, gratitude is an emotion – a complex emotion that can’t be planned or pretended and surprises us at random times. So what happens when we should be grateful but our emotions are distant? Bass goes on to say that gratitude is also more than just emotion. ‘It is a disposition that can be chosen and cultivated, an outlook toward life that manifests itself in actions – it is an ethic.’ (p 52).
Gratitude is like love in that it is a complex set of emotions that we feel but it is also a choice and a commitment. This relationship between feeling and choice opens up a number of skills that we must begin to apply if we are to feel grateful when we least feel like being so. It is about connecting.
So gratitude requires connecting and gaining some disciplined habits: noticing kindness done, noticing goodness and beauty, intentionally giving and returning thanks, embracing the feelings of awe when we are gifted; enjoying the smiles and goodness when we give.
Learning gratitude involves emotional muscles, cues, routines, rewards. Like drinking coffee in the morning, we form pathways in our brains through repetition. So we practice and practice so that the giving and receiving of thanks becomes a strong habit over time.
Diana tells of a difficult time in her life when someone suggested to her that she needed to learn to be grateful. She had started journaling each day so she added the task of writing one thing in her journal each day that she was grateful for. As the next months and years unfolded her journals became more and more positive and what began as a time of crisis in her life evolved into feelings of happiness and accomplishment.
‘Gratitude is not only the emotional response to random experiences, but even in the darkest times of life, gratitude waits to be seen, recognized, and acted upon more thoughtfully and with a sense of purpose.’ (p 60).
Hindsight: is the practice of looking back with gratitude; reflecting on the good events and circumstances of your life. It is good to take time to look back with thanks. Fortunately we humans have a natural ‘positive recall bias’ which tends to romanticize many of our past experiences so this works on our side to help. As you do this there will be wreckage from the negative events but if you search well, a larger narrative of good can rise from those stories.
I recommend the daily Examen popularized by Saint Ignatius. It is simply a quiet time where we look back on our day and ask God to bring truth into our lives through it. It can be a valuable way to be thankful and to identify things that we missed being thankful for. It blesses us, chastises us and teaches us in one setting.
Wide Sight: or ‘soft eyes’ is an awareness of things on the periphery; things we don’t easily see. It is the ability to see that there is hidden good in the present and in places not obvious to us. It takes practice to look past our current cares or stresses and see the soft things that bless our senses and give us warmth. (See also Examen above.)
I once took a photography course where our assignment was to take a roll of film (yeah, ‘roll’ of film) of pictures while standing in one spot. The next week, two rolls. The next week three rolls without turning. And on and on. The idea was to train us to see creatively, newly from our usual place.
Foresight: is the ability to look forward and to grow into our best selves. Gratitude helps us to become a better version in the future, to be more positive and to spiral upward. Relationships and experiences that happen in the here and now can be pathways to unimagined possibilities in the life ahead. (See also Examen above.)
Our very curious grandson Owen has just learned to crawl and pull himself up and now many new interesting objects are accessible to him. That makes for a lot of work for his mom but I have the impression that, in spite of this new busyness, she is learning to enjoy the experience and the memories of each day together. As Wendy said, ‘I don’t do anything by myself any more but at least my sidekick is cute.’
By embracing these experiences, Wendy is also casting an eye to the future, investing in her son, her family, and her own well-being through her gratitude today.
Gratitude takes time to learn. But it can be learned. Maybe even must be learned.
Let’s all begin today the habits – practice , practice, practice – of being more and more aware and thankful.