A blind man was begging in the city park. A visitor approached and asked him whether people were giving generously. The blind man shook a nearly empty tin. The visitor said to him, "Let me write something on your card." The blind man agreed.
That evening the visitor returned. "Well, how were things today?"
The blind man showed him a tin full of money and asked, "What on earth did you write on that card?"
"Oh," said the visitor, "I merely wrote 'Today is a spring day, and I am blind.'"
What if I told you that a true gift is never given, that it is something surely and spontaneously given -- inspired rather than occasioned? What if I told you that you may not have actually experienced true gratitude?
"Ari," you might say. "What are you talking about? I give to charity. I volunteer. I give the homeless guy a few dollars."
That's great if you are, but what I am asking is, when you do those things, are you expecting anything in return, even from "the universe," for having given or done something?
I have learned over the years that gratitude is a way of seeing and thinking, not a feeling. Gratitude is the vision -- the way of seeing -- that recognizes a "gift" as something inspired rather than occasioned. I believe that as human beings, we have lost the true experience of gratitude because we perceive it to be a feeling. Feelings are fine, but as Linus says to Charlie Brown, "Do you want a shivery-warm feeling that makes you tingle all the way through your body? Well, go pee in your pants."
Consider the flip side to gratitude -- the notion that everything deserves to be "gotten." As Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham point out in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection , "Misery arises inevitably from the belief that we are in control, that we can control everything and that anything we have we deserve …happiness -- the joy of living -- comes in the experience of gratitude that flows from a vision of one's life as a reality received, a gift given freely and spontaneously … [removing] self from the center."
Are you at the center of your life? Are you trying to control everything in your life and even parts of others' lives? This is not easy to look at objectively, but if you take a step back, perhaps it may help you see where or how you may be acting and living in the center of your life. This will prevent you from experiencing try gratitude, one of the most precious gifts we as human beings can experience.
So, you want to practice living in gratitude -- how to start?
Let go of control. Understand how much has been given to you and how gift-ed we all are. Sometimes, the best way to say '"thank you" is simply to pass it on -- to give to others what has been given to you.
This helps me practice living in gratitude, and also keeps me grounded in the present moment to appreciate everything and everyone in my life.
The other night, I pulled into the grocery store parking lot to snag my weekly ice cream fix. I started to pull into a spot and noticed almost too late that it had a shopping cart sitting in it. If this has happened to you, you know how frustrating it can be.
I could have mumbled some obscenity, blamed someone else for being careless, pulled out and found another spot. Instead, I got out of the car, wheeled the cart into the receiver and then pulled into the spot. Immediately I noticed three other stray shopping carts in the lot. Without thinking twice, I went and pushed them into the receiver too. I noticed people in the lot watching what I was doing with some fascination, possibly thinking that I worked at the store.
I was not thinking about the time I was wasting, or the money I was not being paid to do someone else's job, or where the grocery store employee was whose job it was to clear the shopping carts had gone. I just went and did it.
I could not control the person who left the cart there, or the grocery store employees, or prevent this from repeating itself. I could only control my response to the situation and choose to act out of love and kindness, not out of selfishness and anger.
Then, on my way out of the store, I ran into the shopping cart receiver employee -- a young man, probably an early teen -- wearily collecting shopping carts and wheeling them into the receivers. I stopped, turned and waved to him, smiled, thanked him and wished him a great night. His reaction suggested that not one single person had said anything remotely close to that, much less acknowledged his existence. He smiled back, thanked me and wished me the same. In that moment, I experienced true gratitude, in part because I truly appreciated this total stranger and knew I had made him feel good without any expectation of anything in return.
We all experience difficulties and hardships in our lives, from abandoned grocery carts to things much more serious. The goal is to experience gratitude despite them.
For me personally, the past 19 months have taught me a lot about true gratitude. I'm going through a divorce, and I have experienced a lot of what I perceive to be pain, suffering and loss. However, in this process of healing, I have discovered that it's not in the successes that I truly feel grateful, it's in the moments when I feel the most down and out, when I perceive life to be beating me down or taking something away from me, that I have the choice -- the opportunity -- to go out into the world and spread love and kindness, rather than experience anger and fear.
As part of my daily routine, I sit down and write a gratitude list before going to bed and keep it in my wallet throughout the day. When I feel uneasy or out of sorts, I silently read the list, thank God for everything, and then go about my business. It's amazing how this one recent change in my routine has already helped me create a happier, more grateful vision for my life and the world around me.
So this "giving season," try out this experiment of living in gratitude: Think of those who need you desperately, and go help them; give freely and spontaneously to the next 10 people you encounter, or better yet, start each day by asking, "What can I do today to help enrich someone else's life?"
And you don't have to feel overwhelmed by the idea. Start small. Pick up trash instead of walking by it. Pay for someone else's Starbucks in line behind you. Hold the door open for an absurdly long period of time. Offer to give someone a ride somewhere, even if it's out of your way. When you encounter a stranger, simply make eye contact, smile, and say "hello." When you do, watch the world change. When you give freely and spontaneously without expecting anything in return, you are filled with warmth, joy and yes, the feeling we describe as gratitude.
I'll end with a quote from Elie Wiesel. As you read it, consider your own perspective on life and on what you are grateful for:
"No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us along; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Wishing everyone peace and love.
For more stories in the "Just Thought I'd Say Thanks" blog series, visit oychicago.com/thanks.