“Enough is a feast.” – Buddhist Proverb
I started writing an introduction for my third book this past summer. The topic of the book deals with resiliency—the ability people have to bounce back after tragedy or trauma. I could think of no better story to begin such a book than the life of Abraham Lincoln. After gathering a veritable library of books on Lincoln’s life, I began my research in earnest.
One rainy afternoon while I sat reading in the den of my home with a warm mug of coffee to one side, and a purring cat on the other, I came across a little gem of a story. It was an account documented in the early years of the Civil War:
It was one of those little vignettes you come across, read and smile, and then file away for future use, but probably easily forget within a fortnight.
There was something about this anecdote that stuck with me. It seems obvious at first . . .
We only have one life.
But there’s the rub—everyone knows this fact, but in practice we act as if we are invulnerable, that we have many lives and many more days to come, world without end. So we agonize to mold each day into the sort of day we envision it ought to be for us. The “perfect day” is as only as far as we have the ability to plan and control outcomes to best benefit us.
It’s a tightrope act. We wobble and fidget, we balance and posture, trying to capture our balance to move forward. To fall is certain death, or at the very least to become the laughingstock of our peers in the circus audience below.
It’s also a strange, paradoxical mix of our perceived invulnerability and an urgent force compelling us to seize the day, as we would direct it. Evolutionary biology would suggest that this sort of attitude keeps us alive. The human condition dictates that we’re stuck with it, to varying degrees. Like most human behaviors, different people will act differently. Your mileage may vary.
It seems, at least anecdotally, people who are in recovery from addiction suffer from the negative consequences of our temperament, which are many.
After I had been to treatment and was living in a sober-living facility in Saint Paul, Minnesota, I was a basket case. I didn’t have the “fun” that drugs or alcohol provided, so my brain drove me to other avenues of stimulation: I sped too much. I got pissed off waiting in line at Target. I fought with my wife over what type of house we should buy. And I started drinking coffee by the gallon and (ugh!) smoking cigarettes. I did anything to distract me in the moment. I certainly wasn’t grateful for simply being alive.
My behavior was the result of two conflicting beliefs:
1) You must control life; you might die tomorrow!
– and –
2) You will live forever; do what you want!
From what I heard from people who care about me, I was a bear to live with.
The solution I found surprised me. A guy I’d met in a meeting agreed to work with me. He spelled out for me how he believed his brain was wired. I related with nearly every story he told me. “That’s me, too” isn’t a phrase people in recovery say by accident. I asked him what the solution to our common problem was.
“You gotta start with gratitude. It’s about being grateful,” he said.
I asked him, “What about the times when things don’t go our way?”
“Like what? When? Give me an example.”
I dug up a simple problem for me; one that plagues me every day: “I hate getting up in the morning. I feel like shit.”
“Then you get to feel like shit. You get to have that experience,” he said.
“That doesn’t make any damn sense. I don’t want to feel that way!”
“Well, maybe you should go to bed earlier! But that probably won’t make any difference. You’re probably not a morning person, but if you want to function in society, you’re just gonna to have to get through it,” he said, and then added, “and I’m telling you . . . the way you do that is by being grateful—you get to feel that way in the morning. It’s a gift, period.”
I’ve never forgotten that conversation. Or the simple principle of gratitude my sponsor taught me. Thanks, Geoff.
The point I want to bring across here is to answer the question:
Why have gratitude?
Robert Emmons, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, is cited in an article in the Atlantic titled Gratitude Without God. Although I’m a person of faith, I wanted to get at the scientific basis for gratitude. It’s fascinating what he wrote:
We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency. The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people.
Gratitude is the truest approach to life. We did not create or fashion ourselves. We did not birth ourselves. Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.
Gratitude, or endeavoring to be grateful, stems from first understanding our origin as dependent creatures. The benefits a person reaps from choosing gratitude over resentment, giving thanks over the need to control, are well documented and many. It’s my belief that gratitude is the solid foundation to build a healthy recovery on.
A QUICK EPILOGUE:
When my editor had received the introduction I had written for the beginning of my third book, she made me scrap the whole piece and start over. She said it wasn’t the beginning that the book needed. After months of studious research and agonizing night after night at a keyboard, I had to admit that she was right—it was a hot mess, and I needed to start from scratch, again.
If I hadn’t become the person I am today, I never would have seen her honesty (or her experience as an editor) as a gift. Instead, I would have burned in resentment and sought another editor, who probably would have told me the same thing.
Today I’m grateful that I had “failed” in my attempt to write a worthy introduction for my book. I “got” to experience rejection and I “got” to dig deeper within myself to write a much more meaningful piece. And I “got” to write this little essay on gratitude for you today as well.
Gratitude? Yes, please.
This post was originally featured on Transformation is Real.