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.


Practical Philosophy

“Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring”

I don’t listen to a ton of music. But I do get caught on songs. Most recently, I’ve been caught on Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” — here’s a great live performance of it. I discovered it not because I’m a Leonard Cohen fan, or that I heard it playing, but rather because someone cited a few lines from it that caught my attention (and kind of blew my mind). The chorus of the song is as follows:

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

The song is a celebration of imperfection. The world is not perfect, but we should not lament it. Injustices occur, but we shouldn’t dwell on them. We should, instead, “Ring the bells that still can ring.”

The one thing almost everyone can agree to is that the world is not exactly how we’d like. And what’s more, it was never really exactly the way we wanted it to be. And if we’re really self-aware and honest, I think we know that it can never be “just so.”

Surely we can (and should) work to make the world we live in more like the one we want to live in. Surely there are tremendous gains made by the people who see an imperfection in the world and then spend a minute, a week, or a lifetime working to change it. When the direction they point is one we agree with, we owe them a real debt.

But all of that can be true without it changing the need to celebrate what we have right now. The only time we’re in is now and the only condition we’re in is our current one. We can spend our time dwelling on the imperfections in the current conditions, or we can acknowledge and celebrate the great things in them.

This is, in a real sense, the thing that separates the happy from the miserable. Everyone alive has an imperfect life. Maybe it’s imperfect because they just lost the love of their life, and maybe it’s imperfect because they weren’t named People Magazine‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” But it’s almost certainly not exactly the way they would make it in their dreams.

But you spend all your time contemplating those imperfections and you’re almost guaranteed to feel frustrated with the way your life is. You’re going to have a low-level agitation all the time. You’re going to have a short temper, and carry a constant sense of dissatisfaction.

What’s needed for you to feel satisfaction in your life isn’t to drastically change it — finally land the man of your dreams, get the promotion you envy, or the house you’ve had your heart on since you were six — but to cultivate satisfaction with the present. To really make a practice of feeling grateful and pleased with the way your life is right now. It’s not that it’s great — “there is a crack in everything” — but you can (and I’d argue should) celebrate it. “Ring the bells that still can ring.”


From the Past: To My Teachers, Thank You

I wrote this thank you letter soon after I graduated from high school is 2004. It’s interesting to me again as I’ve been thinking back over my now finished education. I’m not too happy that I never to sent the letter to all my teachers; I had a list drawn up but I never got to it. My only hope is that one day find the energy to send them all, or that one day they find this page.

An open letter to all who have been a part of my education:

I know I was never the most attentive student, or the most open, but have no doubt that in looking back, I am extremely grateful. Further, I know that I wasn’t always the most able pupil, though some of you were kind enough to think otherwise. For this too, I am thankful.

I’ve learned a lot from you. And I hope to continue to learn, for the rest of my life. I hope you will all take pride in any of my successes. As for my failures, don’t hesitate to blame them on my (many) personal flaws. I hope, more than anything, that you realize the supreme positive impact that you have had on me, and all other students whose lives you have touched.

Once again, thank you all for tolerating my foolish little games. Thank you for your patience in dealing with a sometimes uninterested and disruptive student. Thank you for deciding to dedicate your life to educating young people. For this, the world is forever in your debt.

With Admiration,

David Hayes