A Personal Case For Gratitude
A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend which centered around gratitude. I do not claim to be any sort of expert when it comes to hacking your life, but being intentional about practicing gratitude certainly helps me (and many others) to be happier and more fulfilled. If I may, I want to share a couple anecdotes which have lead me to believe this, as well as some resources which might convince you of the same.
My Friend’s Story
It was over breakfast that a conversation with my friend, who asked me not to share his name, took place. We sat by each other simply because those were the chairs that were open, and began enjoying our yogurt parfaits. I can’t remember who said what first, but I do remember that as we began to talk, I tuned everyone around us out. You know those moments where you’re so engaged in a conversation that the world around you ceases to exist? I was even late to a meeting because I didn’t realize how quickly time flew by.
Our talk ranged from cryptocurrency (which I barely understand), to music, and to other subjects, but what stuck with me the most is when we touched on his journey towards those chairs we were sitting in.
My friend (let’s call him Frank) is originally from Croatia. He had lived there his entire life and had followed different pursuits throughout his time there. He was involved with music, both making it and promoting it, and also dabbled in different varieties of programming and web development here and there. Frank lived a fine life, but had always had a dream of coming to the USA and becoming a full-fledged web developer.
Some people, myself included, often think of a dream as this far-off thing that we would love to happen but we don’t actually take steps towards making that dream a reality. This keeps the dream a dream instead of making it a goal, or something that could eventually be brought to life. Unlike most of us, Frank pursued his dream fervently.
Frank applied to win the “green card” lottery for SIX years before finally getting a chance to come to the USA. For those who don’t know about this lottery, it is a system that has been put in place in order to encourage diversity and allow people from foreign countries to come to the USA with permanent resident status, giving them the freedoms of any citizen minus the right to vote. This all sounds great and dandy until you realize that millions of people apply for this every year and only about 50,000 are accepted as applicants, which means that even if you beat the odds, you are still not guaranteed a green card when it is all said and done. Winning the lottery means that you get to go through what is often a year-long process of trying to prove that you are not a criminal, that you won’t be bringing diseases with you, that you are who you say you are, and that you are generally fit to be a productive member of society. All of this costs money, which a lot of people also don’t have.
Frank falls into the category of people who were accepted but didn’t have the money required for the process. At this point, most people would have given up. Instead, Frank doubled down on his efforts, selling whatever music equipment he had managed to gather over the years and throwing that money into the application procedures. The gamble eventually paid off for him, but this unfortunately isn’t the case for everybody.
Talk about taking my dual-citizenship for granted. By being born in a foreign country to an American mother, I managed to win citizenship both in Colombia and the USA without even having to try. This allowed me to move from Colombia without any hassle whatsoever, and I even get to vote.
Now, the USA is not without its issues, but the point is that MILLIONS of people are trying to get here every year just to live the way we live. I have heard the age-old tale of the “American Dream” time and time again, yet I still manage to forget the tailwinds I have at my back by virtue of being a citizen here.
Sometimes it takes opening yourself up to new perspectives to realize how easy you have it. Frank reopened my eyes to the reality of the advantages that I have in life simply due to my geographical location, not to mention the fact that I’m white, a male, and have a college education. If anybody should be grateful each and every day it should be me but I tend to forget that if I don’t actively nurture this train of thought.
During my final year of pharmacy school, I had an opportunity to live and work in Eldoret, Kenya. Every day, my classmates and I would go to Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital and provide care to patients as part of a healthcare team. Our teams consisted of two pharmacy students, a handful of medical students, a medical intern, a medical resident, and an attending physician. The titles there are slightly different, but the gist is the same.
DISCLAIMER: I want to make it very clear that by no means were we Americans going in there to fix a broken system, or provide charity, or anything of the sort. The Kenyans are insanely capable, intelligent individuals who did not need “saving” or anything like it. I believe that too often when people do medical work abroad, they develop a sort of savior complex where they think that they are God’s gift to insert-country-here and don’t take into account the cultural nuances involved in providing care that will actually benefit the people in that specific setting. If anybody benefited from me being in that hospital, it was probably 90% me and 10% my patients. The amount of knowledge that I gleaned from my Kenyan colleagues far outweighs any contribution I might have made to the team.
This two-month period was the most formative time of my life. I could write for days about the lessons that I learned from the Kenyan people, the Kenyan culture, and from living in a foreign country in general, but that is not what we are here to discuss. Arguably, the biggest difference I noticed between the people there and the people here (here being the United States) was the difference in how grateful people were on a daily basis.
I saw people in that hospital who were grateful for things that I know for a fact no patient in the United States would ever tolerate, nor would they be expected to. Some of the diseases that I saw in that hospital barely even exist here. The living conditions of some of my patients would no-doubt break the average American’s spirit (not excluding myself). At the end of the day, however, despite these obstacles, I witnessed gratitude left and right every single day from everybody; the patients, the doctors, the nurses, the janitorial staff, you name it.
One of my favorite examples is the security guard at the complex where we lived. His name is Michael, and he is probably the best human being I have ever known. Every day, on our way to the hospital, he would greet my classmates and me at the gate with a smile and words of encouragement and compassion. Some of my favorite quotes include:
“Marion (this is how he pronounced my name) I love you so much! Be safe walking to work please thank you!”
“TKIF! Thank Karolina/Katie (two of my classmates — the former later becoming my girlfriend) it’s Friday!”
“When you come and talk to me here at my post I feel proud, I feel that I am doing a great job and I am so grateful to see you every day. When you leave, you must remember me and come to visit me at my house next time you are in Kenya. I will cook for you!”
He would say these sweet things all while bombarding you with handshakes and hugs. He had a funny way of shaking your hand with both hands and holding onto it much longer than is customary. Michael would thank ME after telling ME he loved ME. He somehow found a way to be grateful for deeds that I had not done and words that I hadn’t said.
The crazy thing about Michael is that he isn’t all that unique in Kenya. Most people there thank each other at length for seemingly common gestures. This attitude of appreciation is contagious and it is something that I brought back with me, but have since often forgotten.
It is easy to find things to complain about. Today, I found myself complaining internally about the traffic on my way to work. Once I noticed I was complaining about something stupid, these thoughts followed:
- How lucky am I to have a job to commute to in the morning?
- I am sitting in a vehicle that is my own, which gives me the freedom to travel at will and not everybody has this luxury.
- It could be me in that accident next time.
This simple reframing of my situation is often enough to make me feel better about my first-world problems. It is pretty incredible the effect that thinking outside of ourselves can have. I’m by no means perfect at this (I can be a prolific complainer), but when I do manage to at least acknowledge that I may be overreacting to a situation, I only end up better for it.
This pattern of thinking is not something I invented. I stole it from people greater than myself.
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
- Friederich Nietzche -philosopher who is often criticized for being too nihilistic.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
- Albert Einstein -smart guy who is responsible for much of our understanding of our universe.
If you are reading those and thinking to yourself “Quotes are all good and well but I only listen to facts,” then here is some thoughts on the subject for you from Harvard, Berkley, and Time Magazine.
In essence, it’s all about having nothing to lose and everything to gain. I know that you like to be thanked for the things you do for others and I’m even willing to bet that you feel better when you thank others, too. Being thankful for material things might not seem noble on the surface, but if you are not thankful for what you already have, how will you ever be satisfied when you have more?
I apologize if I have come across as preachy, but there are people much smarter than me who would advise you to be more intentional about practicing gratitude such as Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at UC Davis, or David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. For some, this means practicing gratitude during their meditation practice (me). For others, this means keeping a gratitude journal. For all of us, this can just mean making an effort to say “Thank you” more.
There is no right way to do it, but the wrong way is to not even try. We have all taken something for granted, but nobody has ever gone wrong by being too grateful.