For a long time the power of gratitude eluded me.
Sure, there were times when the position of privilege I was born into, or had attained, was obvious. I could appreciate a trip I took, a fancy new thing I bought, a great meal. I’d say “thanks” for a gift or a job well done or some little bit of kindness extended to me.
I suppose I mostly saw gratitude as transactional.
But if I’m honest, much of the time I was focused on what was lacking. The sense that I wasn’t achieving my potential at work and in my life was a near constant. My internal monologue was consumed by thoughts that I should possess more and sexier stuff, dominate my to-do list, achieve greater status, be in better shape, have everyone like me and on and on. I was feeling more than a wee bit entitled. I was rarely, if ever, satisfied.
In 2009, when I was still in the throes of a personal crisis that had rocked me to my core, the therapist I was seeing patiently listened as I recited yet another tale of woe. As I got to one of my favorite (and by then oft-repeated) complaints, he stopped me. In that somewhat condescending voice all psychologists seem to employ he said “Steve, I wonder if would you be willing to tell me 30 things that you are grateful for right now, at this moment?”
I pushed back. “3o things? I don’t think so.” He encouraged me to just start.
The first few came easily. I had a nice house in a safe neighborhood, a decent amount of money in the bank, a great family. A few more things trickled on to the list with a bit more reflection.
When I stalled at about 8 or 9, my therapist made a few suggestions. “What about the way Charlie (my dog) greets you when you come home? How about the knowing smile on your daughter’s face when you make one of your dumb Dad jokes? How about the fact that you don’t have to worry for even one second whether you’ll have safe water to drink?
He paused to let that sink in. My throat grew tight. “Keep going” he said.
And I did. Spoiler alert: I had no trouble getting to 30.
I left that session feeling better than I had in months. I came, albeit slowly, to see how gratitude is the antidote to my habituated negative thought patterns, the kryptonite to feelings of emptiness and loneliness. I adopted “I have enough, I do enough, I am enough” as a mantra.
My list of things that I’m thankful for is now much greater than 30. The list also includes a lot of actual human beings. It turns out gratitude is relational.
It also turns out gratitude has the power to heal. It turns out that extending gratitude to another person fosters connection–and we all need more of that. It turns out that just waking up today is reason enough to be grateful.
I wish someone had told me that earlier, but I got here as fast as I could.
On this day when many are celebrating Thanksgiving I’m grateful to my friend Seth who generously shares his Thanksgiving Reader. Check it out.
I’m also thankful that I have one friend in my life who will tell me the truth even when it hurts and who constantly challenges me to be a better person. And I’m grateful that I’ve been willing to (finally) tell her how much that means to me.