At 10Am on Friday, November 6th, 2020, I was belly down, legs akimbo, stretching under my king-sized bed in a desperate yet vain attempt to wrestle two cats out and into carriers for a nail trim scheduled for ten minutes earlier. On another day, I probably would have given up. Let the cats win. But not that day. In this season, on that Friday, in that hour, I needed a win. A sense of control over life around me. And even if I was going to be twenty minutes late arriving at the vet, we would show up.
It’s like that for a lot of us right now, especially other white people like me. Who grew up believing that if we go for it, if we wiggle our butts just a little farther under the bed and grab at it, we can grasp success and hold it to our chests. Our effort, our drive, our motivation, our success. We might think less about how that success has arrived in our hands, and more about the satisfaction of achievement. Acutely aware of our own roles in making it happen, we may overlook the roles played by others, by our social privileges, or by serendipity, or by luck, or – for those who believe – by divine intervention.
But by doing so, we miss out. We miss out on the opportunities to understand the world beyond our front door. A world struggling with diversity and equity and inclusion and justice. We rob ourselves of perspectives not our own with the power to flex our thinking and enrich our problem solving. And we fail to experience the incredible gifts that others have to offer, that they are giving us whether or not we pay attention, each and every day. Yes, I would argue that our rigorous individualism may not only over emphasize the I in accomplishment but also deprive us of the critical social need for connection.
Practicing gratitude is perhaps one of many antidotes to this societal poison. Many popular practices of gratitude focus on giving – mixing the idea of what happens to us when we deeply receive something with the acts of generosity, volunteerism, civic engagement, and activism. Although these acts may all be ways that we choose to pay forward the kindness shown to us (and in turn engenders the experience of gratitude), they may or may not be ways to practice gratitude itself. As a six-year old in the Raising Grateful Child study once told us, “She said thank you, but she didn’t mean it.” The teens call it virtue signaling – saying the right thing or doing the right thing for the social bonus points it may bring you. My Aunt Gingy would call it good manners or playing nice.
The practice of gratitude may look very similar on the outside to these pay-it-forward actions and many other ways that we show appreciation. But unless those practices are motivated by the thoughts and feelings that come with noticing the role of others in the good things that come into our lives, they fall short of gratitude. The trick is to set aside our need to protect our own sense of self, of identity, long enough take in others. Teenagers get a bad wrap for how they negotiate this dance, but in truth it is what they do every day. The job of an adolescent, from a developmental point-of-view, is to figure out who they are and how to get and stay connected to others. And if they can learn to do this, so can the rest of us.
For those of you interested in picking up some tools, Andrea will be presenting on the Gratitude Conversations Program at the Love Consortium’s upcoming community event (11.19.20 at 3pm EST) – free event but registration required. Presentations by Sara Algoe and Rainy Gu will talk more about the science of gratitude.