What are you grateful for? Try not to cough up the usual suspects: sunsets, daisies, puppies, babies, and babies playing with puppies among the daisies at sunset. True, I’m grateful that the earth orbits the sun, and I love dogs and babies, but being grateful for these things is too easy. Being grateful requires more than warm fuzzy feelings; it requires clear seeing and right action.
Not long ago a woman shared with me her experience as a lung transplant recipient. She was grateful to the organ donor, and the doctors and nurses who performed the operation. What about the drunk driver who killed the woman whose lung saved her life, I asked; was she grateful to him as well?
She just stared at me. No one had asked her that before. To her credit, she closed her eyes, took a moment to see what was true for her, and said, yes she was grateful to the man who killed her donor and thus saved her life. Then her eyes filled with tears, and said, “And I hate myself for that.”
As we talked she realized that it wasn’t self-hate she was feeling but extreme humility. After all, she neither wished the death of her donor nor did anything to cause it; she simply benefited from this tragedy. But that realization was huge. What if the deceased woman had a family, she mused. What if she had little children who would grow up without a mom? What if she was caring for her parents? A single death can have so many ramifications. How do I live with this, she sobbed.
Your situation may not be this extreme, but the question she asked is your question as well. You are being gifted by people and things all the time. How do you live with this? This is what gratitude is really all about: not feeling grateful, but living gratefully.
Chances are you too have lungs, and don’t need a transplant to be grateful for them. But what about the Brazilian rainforest? Are you grateful for that? After all, your lungs are useless without oxygen, yet neither they nor any other organ in your body produces oxygen. Trees and plants in partnership with the sun do that, and the Brazilian rainforest processes 28% of the world’s oxygen, so the forest is a vital part of your body as well. If you are grateful to your lungs, you must be grateful to trees and plants as well. How do you express your gratitude? What do you do to help secure clean air for your lungs to breathe?
Despite clichés to the contrary, it isn’t the thought that counts; it is the deed that counts. Gratitude that is merely attitude is cheap and meaningless. If you are grateful to your lungs, don’t poison them with carcinogens. If you are grateful for oxygen, protect the living system that produces it. Or, if you don’t, at least have the courage to stop claiming you are grateful for lungs and oxygen.
I wear Rockport shoes and return them to the company for resoling. The first time I did this the shoes came back in near mint condition accompanied by a hand-written note from the person who restored them. He explained how very disappointed he was that I disrespected the shoes he works so hard to make: the leather was scuffed and unpolished; the shoe backs were broken; and the toe box was misshapen because I didn’t keep my shoes on a shoetree. He concluded by asking me to treat his work with more respect.
That was 30 years ago, and I have never treated my shoes the same since. What about you? You would be lost without your shoes. They support your arches, protect your feet from hot pavements and dangerous debris, and (along with your shirt) allow you to eat in restaurants. So how do you show your gratitude? Look at your shoes and see.
What about the rest of your clothes? Do you keep them clean, neatly folded or hanging properly? When you no longer need them, do you toss them out or do you donate them where someone else can benefit from them?
What is true of shoes and clothes is true of everything. It is easy to assess the quality of gratitude in your life by examining how well you treat the people and things in your life. You are being gifted by people and things—seen and unseen, known and unknown—all day, every day. That should make you feel grateful, but more importantly it should cause you to live gratefully.
Living gratefully means taking nothing and no one for granted. It means treating salespeople, stock clerks, bank tellers, and cashiers kindly. It means not polluting your body with excess sugar, fat, and salt. It means not polluting your community with bigotry, fear, anger, gossip, and ill-will. It means saying thank you to everyone and everything by treating them all with utmost respect.
Be grateful for babies and puppies, just don’t stop there. Join with others to offer a scholarship at a local daycare center, adopt or rescue an animal companion, or support a local animal shelter. Gratitude is not a way of feeling, it is a way of doing. If you aren’t living gratefully, feeling grateful means nothing at all.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, PhD teaches religious studies at Middle Tennessee State University and is the director of Wisdom House Center for Interfaith Studies in Nashville. He has written over two dozen books and a new series, Rabbi Rami Guides: Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler, available at Spirituality & Health Books and Amazon.com; see www.rabbirami.com.