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.
Ann: You may want to Google Positive Psychology and see the connection to your focus on gratitude. This is from the Positive Psychology Center, Martin Seligman at U. of Penn. He is a “founder of Positive Psychology, a new branch of psychology which focuses on the empirical study of such things as positive emotions, strengths-based character, and healthy institutions. His research has demonstrated that it is possible to be happier — to feel more satisfied, to be more engaged with life, find more meaning, have higher hopes, and probably even laugh and smile more, regardless of one’s circumstances. Positive psychology interventions can also lastingly decrease depression symptoms. The research underlying these rigorously tested interventions is presented in the July/August edition of the American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychology Association.
Authentic Happiness has almost 700,000 registered users around the world. You are welcome to use all of the resources on this website for free.”
I certainly agree with the concept of gratitude – and that we all do need to be more aware of the ‘gifts’ we receive daily. However, what I reacted to was that comment from the woman who was so angry that she had to “help others” with her tax money. Where does she imagine the money is to come from if not from all of us who are fortunate enough to live in this country? I am having my own personal experience with financial difficulties – in the lives of my family members – I would like to know where they are supposed to find the money to pay for their rent, food, just the basic essentials if they are 1) retired, without sufficient retirement income to survive on or 2) unemployed, and unable to find work. I have had to take my niece and her husband into my house just to give them a place to live. This puts a strain on my budget, but I still voted for the increase in taxes that would help to provide money for the firefighters, police, and also education, – all of which are necessary to help keep our community healthy and safe.
I’m sure we will soon be hearing about the “failure of our leaders” because these services will not be sufficient – I could go on, but I get so angry when I think about the ignorance of the voter who believes he or she has no responsibilty – it is so easy to blame the government for everything.
Ann, I am curious . . .and this may be another blog topic for you one day. . .how does ‘compassion fatigue’ figure into all of this? Somewhere along the line I recall reading how even good, grateful people can reach a point of saying, “Enough! I can’t help anymore. . .” They become overwhelmed with the requests, be it from very well meaning organizations and/or from very well-meaning taxing authorities that encourage people to give, give more, etc.
I just received another (I’ve had two this week) request from an organization that I support, asking if I can give more to help cover the deficit being created by those who are not able to donate any longer. In both cases I am very grateful for the organizations and the work they do, but as these types of requests continue, I will come a point that I say, “No, there is no more to give.” (As in, there is no more to give, not just a philosophical approach).
So how do the books and research balance the desire to do good and continue to demonstrate gratefulness without giving in to compassion fatigue? It seems an interesting conflict in human emotion. And thanks for writing about this thought-provoking topic!
Jackie, I don’t have a good answer to your question about compassion fatigue. In the case you describe of an organization you support that like most non-profits is losing donors, is maybe even about to go under, I would say that in the current financial downturn some groups will likely not survive and that there’s nothing you can do about it. Facing this reality is not the same thing as lacking in gratitude or compassion. And we don’t want to put ourselves in the role of victim, which thinking in terms of compassion fatigue may cause us to do. Sincerely, Ann (Landers)
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