When I was a teenager and on into my early 20’s, I had big plans for life. I was going to be a filmmaker. Not just any filmmaker, but a great one…maybe the best ever! You’ll have to forgive the ego of my younger self. He had a healthy appetite for delusion. Now a decade and a few odd years later, my life has turned out very much different from what I’d envisioned.
So what went wrong?
That’s an odd question when you think about it, and it may very well be the wrong question to ask. We often assume that when life doesn’t go according to our plan that some sort of derailment has taken place and it often involves a personal failure to boot. We conceive of life as a journey with only one possible destination and quite arguably, only one possible path. Namely, the one which we choose for ourselves. When we fail to arrive, or for that matter, fail to adhere to the path we’ve so meticulously laid out, the burden of shame, guilt and regret can be crushing.
This all stems from a vision of life which assumes something like absolute agency in our choices and outcomes. Just how much choice do we really have though? For example, I’m quite certain that barring the existence of some convoluted sci-fi plot, that not a single mere mortal who has ever lived has had any say in their own birth.
Even if a person manages to get as far as being born (many don’t after all), they’ll still spend the rest of their lives with the awareness that injury or illness could come at any time, for any random reason and inflict limitation or death upon them.
So while we make grand plans (or even modest ones), the infinite ocean of possibility is swelling and churning and tossing, determining our fate from one moment to the next.
You may be at the helm of your little boat, but you don’t control the wave.
Let’s take this image a bit further. Suppose you intended to reach a particular place. Perhaps this place was quite literally, the land of your dreams (or so you assume). Yet somewhere along the way, something happened. Your little ship started coming apart. Illness took hold. You were laid off and your entire industry was decimated. Someone died.
Now you’re adrift, wondering what you’re going to do. You’ve lost control. Whatever power over the situation you thought you had, has been ripped away from you. Amidst the chaos, uncertainty and fear about the future, and quite against your own will I might add, the shattered ruins of your little vessel fall upon a foreign shore.
You don’t know this place. It’s certainly not where you intended to go. What’s more, there’s little possibility of leaving. You are where you are.
For some, this is the point at which bitterness and dismay takes root. Perhaps it grows into anger, or sadness or disgust over the circumstances and situation. But that’s not the only possibility! One might also recognize a simple and often neglected truth…
A failure to end up where you planned says nothing about the goodness of where you are.
Think of just how fragile our plans are after all, and how limited! Take the most brilliant minds and consider how many accidents of life had to fall in their favor in order for them to become who they were. And by “accidents” here, I’m referring to those things which were not a matter of choice, but of chance.
To borrow a metaphor from programming, your existence is one of the biggest and most improbable conditional statements one could imagine. In order to be where you are right now, you had to have not died yesterday, or the day before that, or any of the days which preceded this one.
The same can be said for your parents and their parents and on and on back through history. A twisted ankle 35,000 years ago could have made your existence impossible. A childhood illness could have rendered your mind or body, and consequently your experience of life, drastically different from the one you now know, possibly for the better, or for the worse.
There’re those accidents of life at work again.
Any number of factors which were and are well beyond your control made you the person you are today. In the grand scheme of things, your choices played arguably the smallest part. This can be both freeing and damning depending on how you look at it.
For the person bloated with pride, they would likely feel offended at the assertion that they aren’t quite so self-made as they thought. Nudge even one small aspect of their lives in a different direction, and whatever “success” they now enjoy might have become impossible.
Meanwhile for the person crushed by the circumstances of life or swept out to sea by an inner despair, the recognition of the miraculous nature of their existence may well nurture another miracle still. One whose fruit is gratitude.
Gratitude isn’t a given after all. For some people its the most difficult thing in the world. They look around them and fixate on how everyone has something better…something more, than what they themselves have. Or else, perhaps they look at the considerable fortunes they do have (not just financial ones) and think to themselves, “of course I deserve this. I worked hard.”
I’m not suggesting that people don’t work hard or that they shouldn’t enjoy some of the so-called fruits of their labor. I am however saying that to do so without gratitude ensures that nothing will ever truly satisfy. No amount of wealth, strength, cleverness or beauty will ever be enough.
To take just one example, this is why the extraordinarily wealthy often turn to absurd habits of collecting, whether it be wine, watches, cars… even companies. Yet somewhere there’s a child with a beat up little toy car that’s missing the passenger side wheel, and they delight in that thing more than the person who owns the real deal. I use an extreme example here, but this could apply to any of us.
Without gratitude we scour the Earth (or what little corner of it we inhabit anyway) for even the smallest ounce of genuine satisfaction to quench that inner thirst. Yet everywhere we look…all that was once saturated with life, now runs dry.
And not just dry, but dead.
In a very real sense, a lack of gratitude is death for us. It’s the death of joy, the death of compassion, the death of hope, the death of love and ultimately, the death of life. If life can in some sense be thought of as existence, then to forego gratitude is to go through life without existence…without substance. We willfully take upon ourselves an ethereal nature which has only its own appetites and desires for company.
In short, we need gratitude. Gratitude sees the good in what is…no matter how small. Its what makes a crumb a blessing for one person while for another, an ever so slightly imperfect feast presents an occasion for rage.
You don’t need to have everything you ever dreamed of to experience gratitude. You don’t need to control the wave. It’s nothing to strive for or be puffed up about. You don’t even have to end up where you thought you were going. All you have to do is find that one tiny thing…that one minuscule morsel of goodness…and hold it there, deep in the quiet of your own heart.
Feel the warmth of it. Feel the joy. Feel the gratitude.