To educate yourself for the feeling of gratitude means to take nothing for granted, but to always seek out and value the kindness that stands behind the action. Nothing that is done for you is a matter of course. Everything originates in a will for the good, which is directed at you. Train yourself never to put off the word or action for the expression of gratitude. — Albert Schweitzer
Here we are in the holiday season, a time of year which – for many people celebrating many different holidays – involves some exchanging or giving of gifts. And, that means saying, “thank you,” and hopefully meaning it. Saying thank you for a gift isn’t so difficult — well, it can be for some people; I’ve had to give more than one child a talking-to about how important it is to say thank you for a present received, even if it isn’t the one you had in mind. But really meaning that thank you, and being openly grateful for all of the other gifts we receive that don’t come in box with a ribbon, those can be more of a challenge sometimes.
Deep down, I think that most people know that life is a gift. Opening your eyes in the morning is something for which to feel gratitude. Having loved ones, even when they are a little annoying, is a blessing. Clean(ish) air to breath, safe water to drink, enough food on the table, shelter to live in, and adequate medical care are not things to take for granted and so many people do not have them. I like to think we know we should feel thankful for fulfillment of our basic needs. Yet, maybe we don’t always remember to express that gratitude – to get it out of the back of our minds and into our actions.
Beyond basic needs, most of exist, in some way, in positions of privilege which are a gift. Different people experience different privilege, which can be based on age, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, sex, socioeconomic status, occupation, country/area of residence, family connections, religious status, political affiliation, educational status, appearance, and so on. Sometimes we may feel a certain guilt about our privileged status (because it often is a result of how/when/where we were born and the opportunities thus presented to us and not to others), which may stand in the way of being able to really express gratitude for the possibilities that it offers.
There are also all the things that those around us do, on a daily basis, to care for and support us. It could be picking up the groceries, making dinner every night, cleaning the toilet, a hand on the small of the back, opening a door, adding paper to the printer, filling the cups on the water cooler, bringing candy for the bowl on the counter, folding the yoga blankets neatly, and so much more. It’s easy enough to overlook things like this when someone does them regularly, because the person begins to fade into the background and the benefit becomes an expectation, making us perhaps more likely to be annoyed by non-performance than we are grateful for performance.
Even the troubles of our lives are something that deserve gratitude. How can we know happiness without sorrow? What would help us to grow and develop as beings if there were no adversity? How can self-confidence really be cultivated with nothing to overcome? It’s not necessarily something that we think of – saying “thanks” for the bad things – and yet…
So, yeah, there is a whole lot to be grateful for – all of it, actually. It’s a bit difficult to imagine how we could adequately begin to express thankfulness for all of it. But, perhaps it is possible. We can begin by being more mindful. Really paying attention to the full experience in any given moment would go a long way. This would help us to not just see the things that are hard or disappointing in every minute of life (my head hurts), but also the part that is fine or good or great in every moment (my toe feels fine!).
Such awareness of the things for which we should be grateful opens up the opportunity to express that gratitude. Perhaps sometimes that involves saying thank you to someone you don’t usually thank, or doing something nice for him/her. But expressing gratitude doesn’t have to be about saying thanks for a specific gift we have been given. It can also be in our every action. Working at the soup kitchen, dropping off clothes at goodwill, volunteering time for the community animal shelter, donating to a charity, all of these can be acts of thanks for the many privileges we have been given. Even slicing an onion with awareness we can be thinking, “This is a beautiful onion that is making my eyes water. I am so glad to have this onion and these eyes.” That sense of wonder and gratitude is then going to be translated into the simple act of cutting the onion. A yoga practice, a hymn sung, a garden planted, a floor vacuumed – done with a whole heart and with a sense of thankfulness, whether or not that is directed toward any specific being, is gratitude in action.
Considered in this way, showing gratitude is not just about something “extra” we have to do (though we should still keep volunteering and donating and giving to others), it becomes an aspect of everything that we do already. Eating a peanut butter sandwich or brushing teeth can become an act of thanks. How easy is that? Our whole being can be an act of gratitude.
But, teach your kids to say “thank you” anyway. And thank you for reading this blog post!