Practical Philosophy

Gratitude is the Foundation

When I look around at people, one thing that I notice is that their dispositions — how generous they are to those around them, how short their tempers are, how patient they can be, how randomly careless toward others they are, how willing they are to help — have very little to do with their material circumstances. And it has even less to do with their outward appearance. The crucial influence on their disposition and associated behaviors seems to be the gap between what a person believes they deserve, and what they recognize that they have.

Some people, we know, feel they deserve the world and everything in it. That by virtue of their parents, their nation, their friends, whatever, they deserve all that they have and also much much more. No one in the world can have a puppy if I don’t also have a puppy! All children go through this phase; some, I think, never really leave it.

Then there are humble people. People who give a lot relative to what they have. Maybe it’s this decade’s hot philanthropist Bill Gates, maybe it’s a volunteer at your church or local homeless shelter. Whoever it is, there are people we see giving to others; being kind and generous. And we’re moved, or should be, to wonder how exactly they do it. Whatever their ability to give, they give more than we’d ever reasonably expect.

You shouldn’t sacrifice your mental or physical health for the purpose of being generous. And you probably, short of a kind of insanity, wouldn’t. But an easy shift that changes hugely how you relate to what you have and what you need and what you deserve is growing your gratitude for what you have.

Gratitude, more than anything else, seems to determine how wealthy and secure a person feels. The actual material circumstances, within some sane bounds (let’s at least not pretend that people can live without food, water, and shelter), don’t matter much. What matters is what you see as worthy of gratitude. For some it is simply to have food to eat. Others are only glad if the food is healthy or tasty. And some are outraged that the chef whose name in on the front of the restaurant didn’t personally prepare every piece of food that was placed before them. On this, and many other matters of perspective, you choose where you fall. We don’t control the world, but we do control our dispositions.

One of the easiest and best places to start to take control of your disposition is in practicing gratitude. Find one thing in your life that you’re truly thankful for. Write it down. Can’t think of more? Come back later. Continue the exercise. You don’t have to make a physical list. You don’t have to always feel grateful for everything on your list. But you can and should understand the value of gratitude, and that an exercise as simple as making a list is a great way to start to grow it. As Melody Beattie said:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

You don’t control all that comes at you in life. But you do get to control your disposition and your response to what comes. And the foundation of a healthy and productive response is gratitude.



Taking Care of Yourself First

All my life I’ve wanted to go change the world. Make it better, more like I thought it should be. And it took my a long time, but I finally know something about that process of changing the world: it starts with you.

The single thing in the world you have undeniable influence over is yourself. Your mental and physical reality is the only thing you have meaningful control over. Getting that in order is a great first step for putting the world in order.

One of things I always wanted to change out in the world was that I saw conflict and strife cropping up in places it wasn’t necessary. Misunderstandings have an amazing tendency to become emotional or physical conflicts between people, groups, and nations. It’s always seemed an insane and unnecessary process.

And I saw the urgent need to change that in the external world. But it took me a while to realize that right in my own life this very problem, which was so obvious in the wider world, was operating. Emotionally, I’d regularly find myself out of control and blowing a simple misunderstanding well past its proper proportions.

What I came to realize is that it’s nearly impossible to reasonably expect others to respond calmly to situations when you can’t do it yourself. I wanted other people to check their understanding before they got angry, but I’d myself regularly failed to do it. I’d fly off the handle and not realize it.

So I’ve spent the last few years working on myself. I’m less prone — though I still have some distance to go — to fly off the handle and find myself out of control. It’s a gradual process, bringing more peace into yourself, but it’s made a difference. Numerous people in my life have noticed and commented on the change, so I’m confident in it even as I’m sure it’s not complete.

My whole life I’ve heard a direction about oxygen masks on airplanes: in the case of an emergency, parents should put on their own first before they help their children. To the untrained observer this may read as cruel or stupid: a child is more vulnerable and in need of help. But a parent who passes out from oxygen deprivation trying to save their child is of the least possible use to their child. So you work on yourself first.