During the election campaign I heard a radio interview with a Tea Party candidate — one of the angry Americans we heard from during the last few months (about as frequently as telemarketer’s calls) — who told her listeners about the financial problems her family was facing due to the economy. They weren’t losing their home or forced to live on the street, but they were having trouble getting by. She described the family as thrifty, hard-working and making sacrifices, but still stuck in financial limbo. She said she was sick of giving handouts, i.e., paying taxes, to others. The implication was that other victims of the current financial crisis should pull themselves up by their bootstraps, just as her family was attempting to do and do it without help.
Her story and stories like it bring me back to the topic of gratitude and a point the individuals involved completely missed. (I’m perseverating on this topic because I have to present a workshop on it in a week and my anxiety level is high.)
Returning to the book thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier, we find this quote: “In gratitude we remember the contributions that others have made for the sake of our well-being.” Others? How can that be, we ask? We studied hard, went to college, started at the bottom and moved up in our careers, saved money, always paid our bills on time, raised our kids to be just like us — strong, independent, and responsible. We did it on our own without help from others. This is a common American view; it’s part of our cultural mythology, buried in our collective unconscious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t match reality.
Imagine your typical day. Presumably it begins with your waking up in a bed, located in a house, apartment, dorm, some kind of living quarters with walls and a roof. Did you build these dwellings yourself after cutting the timber and turning it into boards? Not likely, any more than you made the wires, pipes, roofing materials or anything else by hand. Someone, or rather many someones, did it for you. Think about your food, your car, motorcycle or bike and the role you didn’t play in growing the wheat for your toast or manufacturing a vehicle. By now you get the idea. We are able to live as we do thanks to others and often at the expense of others.
Rev. Taitetsu Unno pointed out the challenge of trying to live gratefully when he said, “The first problem is that in order for us to be grateful for anything, we must be able to recognize and acknowledge things done for us. The problem here is our limited sphere of awareness. A simple example would be the care, concern, and love our parents have showered upon us, especially in the first few years of our infancy. We have no way of recognizing or nurturing or remembering the nurturing we receive from them, a nurturing without which we would not be here today. Even in adulthood however, there are so many things that others have done and are doing for us that we never know about.”
Despite the difficulty of being aware of the gifts we receive, it’s worth making an attempt, at least now and then. Try “Naikan Reflection,” that is, just before falling asleep, review what you have received from others that day and what you have given to others. I find it helps put my personal balance sheet in perspective by showing how unbalanced the give and take of each day is.