In the first in-depth article in my series on how to be a Heroic Man, we discussed avoiding the lure of “outer certainty” in favor of self-focused “inner certainty.” This time, we dive into how (and why) men need to cultivate gratitude.
In The Simpsons, there’s a character known as Comic Book Guy.
Comic Book Guy fixates on being an expert in pop culture. He’s elitist, smug, judgmental, and self-assured in his knowledge. He prides himself on clever quips and scoffing at others, mostly to cover up his low self-esteem. In short, Comic Book Guy is a caricature of a curmudgeonly, insecure human being.
Yeah, don’t be that guy.
Why? We have enough Comic Book Guys in the world. There are legions of them, it seems. This mindset breeds masses of disaffected and disenfranchised men who live from one moment of bitterness to the next. Often, the highlight of their day is trolling others online for the chance to appear clever at the expense of others.
As Charlie Chaplin stated at one point in his meme-worthy and seemingly prophetic speech in The Great Dictator, “our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind.”
But it’s no wonder so many men feel and behave this way. We’ve been backed into a corner by the limited behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes we’ve been taught to express. Many men are taught that it’s not acceptable for a male to feel the full range of human emotions. Suppression of the robust and diverse emotional spectrum can lead to very bad things.
Much of our negative view of the world comes from the ambient and insidious indoctrination into the narrow path of “macho” manhood. When all you’ve been taught to be is a nearly-emotionless lone wolf constantly on-edge, looking for threatening competition from other men, you become desperate, apathetic, and angry.
Look, I don’t want to sound flippant. I know it’s easy just to tell you to be grateful. But I want to do more than lecture you. I want to give you practical reasons and solutions.
It’s going to take some conscious work to create a better mindset. But it’s worth it, because “real life” is a life consciously and purposefully lived. Yes, it takes work to switch off your autopilot. Life can beat you down, especially if you’ve been taught that life is, by default, a losing proposition.
But life can be so much more than apathy. That’s when gratitude comes in handy.
Why You Need Gratitude
We seem to have a love affair with fear and worry. There’s biology behind this tendency to focus more heavily on a negativity bias: the amygdala. It’s the seat of the survival mechanism that draws our attention quickly to the negative (or potentially negative).
The problem is, we’re overstimulating our amygdalae. Instead of being a caveman who must assume there’s a saber-toothed tiger outside the cave, our 24-hour news cycle and social media teleport the “dangers and horrors” of the entire world into our homes, which are supposed to be safe places. But now, we’re telling ourselves there’s no safe place, anywhere.
This is where gratitude can help. It is a vital function of our more evolved brain, the prefrontal cortex, which can help pull us out of the “lizard brain” of the amygdala.
You may ask: “Anthony, aren’t you being naïve? Isn’t the world really dangerous?”
In actuality, research has shown that the world is much less dangerous than at any other point in history. It’s not just researchers that have discovered this, though. People like Thomas Francine—who hitchhiked 26,000 miles to find out for himself if human beings are as bad as we think—discover through personal experience every day how good we can be to each other.
If you don’t take time to remind yourself of the good things in life, all you will have left is the negative. Yes, the world can be horrible. People can be terrible. But that’s not a reason to give up on all humanity. Because humanity is also the source of wonder and beauty.
Would civilization even exist, if we were terrible by default? Wouldn’t we have killed ourselves off millennia ago if that was the case? The more logical answer is that we’re neutral. Our “default setting” is to cooperate. We may not always do so for purely unselfish reasons, but it’s still how we helped each other go from caves to skyscrapers. There are more than seven billion of us now. We must be doing something right!
Remember, I’m not denying that there is ugliness of the world. I’m refuting the cynical worldview of seeing the worst in us as our default setting and using that as a reason to be negative about people.
How to Cultivate Gratitude
The first step in cultivating gratitude is to go against any narrow negative programming and let yourself believe that life is a neutral canvas, waiting for you to add the paint. Stop fixating on the world as a rigged game with the cards stacked against you. That’s just the amygdala talking, as well as the broadcasted opinions of ratings-driven television pundits and the cranky neighbors on your town’s community Facebook page.
Second, be grateful for even being here. Do you know the odds you beat by even existing? They’re basically zero. And yet, here you are, reading this article. You are a damned miracle, whether or not you’re religious or an atheist! Are you going to waste this improbable gift of life by being petty toward other walking miracles?
Third, celebrate the contrast between darkness and light, and the crucial role you play in that eternal balance. The existence of positive and negative aspects of life are not meant to frustrate us and make us resentful. Rather, they are intended to drive us toward accomplishment, purpose, and satisfaction. When challenging situations arise, don’t just complain. Think of what you can do to overcome the situation, and what you can learn from circumstances.
Think of success and failure as the interconnected duality of yin and yang, continually pushing and pulling in a dynamic flow that drives us like an engine. Suffering and triumph are the energy that turns the wheel of life. And you are a vital piece of the engine. Take pride in your indispensability!
Be the Paint Brush
A funny thing will happen when you cultivate gratitude: you’ll also increase your humility and tolerance. You will focus more on developing your skills and talents, rather than wasting time on the vanity of feeling superior to other human beings.
Remember, we are the paint brushes for the canvas of the world, on which we can choose to paint beauty or ugliness. What world will you create?
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