Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love The Life You Have
Excerpted from James Autry's new book, Choosing Gratitude: Learning to Love the Life You Have.
Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. We have to learn it.
You’d think we’d be born grateful, helpless as we are coming into the world depending on someone else for everything. Instead, from the first moment, we demand what we need. Then, within a few years, our needs are taken for granted and we turn our attention to the things we want, whether we need them or not. We learn that we can no longer demand, so we beg, wheedle, and cajole until we get what we want.
The first tiny step toward gratitude is when our parents teach us to say, “Thank you.”
Some of us never get past that. Some of us simply grow up to be well-behaved children, only older. Give us something or do something for us, and we say, “Thank you” or, in some parts of the country, “Appreciate it” or “Much obliged.” Polite, conditioned responses, but not gratitude.
Don’t misunderstand; I appreciate polite expressions. They help to lubricate the gears of social concourse and are part of what we consider civilized behavior.
But gratitude is something altogether different. Learning gratitude is a spiritual, not a social, process. Not only is it not conditioned behavior; it’s not behavior at all. It’s a deeply ingrained aspect of our consciousness, an attitude, a condition that, when learned and practiced, becomes fundamental to our being. No doubt it is made evident as behavior, but it is not behavior itself. We can be polite, courteous, respectful, helpful, and all the attributes found in the Boy Scout law, and still not have gratitude.
This is because gratitude, if we have it at all, exists within ourselves and is measured only by ourselves. Like meditation, it has a singular benefit. We can’t give it to anyone else. And we can never expect anyone else to say, “He sure has gratitude” or “She is a grateful person.” People may say, “He is giving and unselfish” or “She is so courteous and respectful of others,” but they can’t say, “Doesn’t her gratitude give you a good feeling?”
You are the only one who knows that gratitude is fundamental to who you are. To paraphrase an old saying, gratitude is its own reward.
But doesn’t gratitude affect behavior? Of course. If gratitude is essential to who you are, then you will always be quick to express appreciation for someone’s help and to respond in kind. That becomes second nature, but let’s go a little deeper. It’s easy enough to say “Thank you” or “I appreciate your help,” but it’s not so easy to feel gratitude when someone has disappointed you, has failed to help, has withheld good will, or has deliberately been obstructive. When you have learned gratitude and fully internalized it so that it becomes who you are, your response is not resentment or ill feelings in return. Instead, it is gratitude that you are not diminished by the other’s attitudes or actions and that you have the knowledge and emotional resources to take the next step. The next step may be an assertive response, but whatever it is, do it without ill will or an attitude of revenge.
To be sure, plenty of circumstances in life challenge our commitment to gratitude, but a lifestyle of gratitude means cultivating a spirit of thankfulness through the negatives of life—sickness, death of loved ones, divorce, and so on—and remember that there will always be more reasons for gratitude than for despair. (See section 6 for insights into how one man lived in gratitude as he faced cancer and death.)
Looking at another aspect of how gratitude affects behavior, consider the current discussions about the “psychology of scarcity” versus the “psychology of abundance,” the debate between those who feel there’s not enough for everyone—so it’s important to protect themselves—and those who feel there can be enough for all.
It sometimes strikes me that Americans are preoccupied with what we don’t have rather than with what we do have. Like many consumers, I struggle with this. Will I have enough for retirement? Will my wife have enough after I die? What if some terrible condition or accident eats up our savings? I’ve planned well, and by any reasonable measurement, my family and I have no worries, yet the scarcity demons creep in and keep me awake. These anxieties are the enemy of gratitude.
To remind myself always to return to gratitude, I have a sentence scripted in fancy calligraphy on my office bulletin board: “What You Have Is Enough.” Indeed, if you live in gratitude, your attitude is always that what you have is enough. Whatever it is, it is enough.
Yet gratitude goes beyond what’s enough for you and yours. Gratitude may lead to generosity for which other people express gratitude to you, but your own gratitude comes from their generosity in allowing you to help.
This spirit of gratitude extends beyond your relationships with people to include your relationship with the natural world. Eventually, you will begin to see everything with new eyes.
Nurturing a spirit of gratitude is not easy. It is a choice. You have to decide that this is how you want to be and then commit yourself to being that way. There is no checklist for growing in gratitude. Just as it’s not about behavior, it’s also not about what to do; it’s about how to be. Being—not doing. This is not about a simple change of attitude; it’s about a complete shift in consciousness. It becomes an internal discipline almost like meditation or centering prayer. The external world doesn’t change, but your awareness of it does. Thus your response to the world changes.
Perhaps the greatest response comes in the realization that everything that has happened in the history of the world comes down to this moment, and that every such moment accumulates into the life you have now. If you can fill your life with moments of gratitude, then you will love the life you have.
In closing, I express my gratitude to you for giving me the opportunity to share my reflections, observations, and stories. The Kansas poet William Stafford once said that it is the writer’s work to dig so deep into his own story that he reaches everyone’s story. I hope this book succeeds in doing that and, in the process, perhaps helps you on your own journey of gratitude.