Call me a skeptic, but all of the recent focus on gratitude and its contribution to happiness has me feeling a bit wary. It seems to me that we’re trying to “buy” our way to happiness by feeling grateful. It feels a bit phony, consumeristic…almost like a band-aid for something that needs to be dealt with on a deeper level. In the quest for happiness, it seems that gratitude is yet one more thing that we have to “do,” on the never-ending list that is our life.
If fostering a sense of gratitude is guaranteed to make us feel happier, why do we struggle with it so much? Why, if happiness is our quest, are we so easily swayed in the opposite direction: of dissatisfaction, of yearning, of striving for better? I’ve got a theory, but it’s still in a nascent phase, so be patient with me as you hear me out.
First, I don’t think as human beings we are intrinsically built to be grateful or even happy. Yes, you heard that right! To be human is to be flawed…and to be constantly searching for a way out of this flawed state. Because we know, deep down, that we are flawed, it is very difficult for us to be grateful. It is so much easier for us to criticize, ourselves and others, because to be human is to see the flaws not just in ourselves, but in those things and people around us. It’s a desperate condition and probably ingrained in our genetic make-up. I believe that it drives the ambition and greed and short-term-ism that we see in so many aspects of our world.
But not all hope is lost, because for as long humans have felt this sense of inadequacy (and that is probably from the beginning of time), we have been searching for a way out. And the first step out is to acknowledge and embrace that we’re living in bodies and souls that are inadequate for meeting our deepest desires.
Once we acknowledge that we are flawed, and completely inadequate to reach our wildest yearnings, this gives us our path forward. It also allows us to see everyone else in this light – providing us with the social side of our nature: we are all in this flawed state together, and together we are certainly more whole and perfect than apart.
Gratitude, therefore, is to be fully appreciative of the inadequacy with which we face the world, and accepting of the fact that every day we will make mistakes, not live up to our ideals, not reach our “full potential” (whatever that is). Gratitude is the acceptance that we are in no way perfect – and yet we get to keep living, each and every day. The idea is to shed the aspirations, and view the present as the ideal.
I think gratitude is not something that you can “do” or even “feel.” It’s certainly not something that can be reduced to a list. Rather, it’s a way of approaching the dawn of a new day with acceptance and love. It’s being in the here and now with every person whom you meet, regardless of your circumstance or theirs. It’s looking at challenges as just that – something exciting to put before you, but in no way a measure of your value or success. It’s making life about the process, essentially a series of interactions that we get a chance to experience in the time we have on this earth.
I was at the Cape Town airport last night and I watched a child looking at the planes taking off. His face was one of wonder and delight.
I thought about all of the energy and creativity and engineering and investment that was put into the aviation industry to get to that moment. And I was so happy. Because that child’s face, full of wonder and appreciation, was the perfect acknowledgement of all of these efforts. And I hoped that all of the people who had put themselves, heart and soul, into the effort behind making those planes soar were fully aware of their accomplishments.
I thought how lucky and blessed and beautiful it was that this boy should be able to see something so grand as a plane taking off (let’s leave carbon emissions aside for now) – and how I hoped that in his life ahead, he had many more moments of wonder and awe to come.
We are not built to be grateful. But grateful we should be. It is difficult to turn against our nature, but this is the task at hand. To let go of the striving, and enjoy the challenges. To abandon ambition, and embrace wonder. To see each day as an enormous opportunity to be awed by something or someone. To acknowledge that we are flawed, and go forward and accept each other nonetheless.
Gratitude is not about making lists, it’s about setting ourselves free.
I hope you have a month full of deep gratitude and we look forward to welcoming you at mang’Oh this March.