Saturday, January 14, 2012


When I was a kid, I always had a problem taking naps or going to sleep. I remember distinctly being struck by the injustice of being sent to bed, while the rest of the world continued living without me. It seemed grossly unfair that everybody else on the planet was up doing cool stuff and having fun while I slept. Even though most of the world's activities were continuing regards of whether or not I was awake, or even aware of what was going on. I couldn't help but feel that I was missing out on life for every minute that I spent in bed. Clearly, the only logical and just solution was for the world to be paused until I awoke again. 

My perspective on sleep has sadly changed, as I have become shamefully less upset at not being included in this whole thing. Thinking about it now, it seems totally wasteful that I would generally prefer a half an hour's unconsciousness to the glories and treasures of waking life. But I have to confess that I'm now an old man in that way. 

There was something that little kid Greg knew that present tense Greg forgot. After I had gotten a little older, I began to look forward to birthdays as benchmarks on my way to real life as a big kid. When I became a junior higher, I eagerly awaited high school in hopes that my awkward and laughable circumstances would change. In high school, I wanted to be in college and start doing things that I "really" wanted to do. For most of college, I was desperate to graduate and start my "real" life. As I started creeping up on graduation, I began to realize how sweet I had it. But I could have just as easily continued the trend and entered grad school, eager to graduate so I could start a career of being eager for retirement. Only to retire and figure out some life lesson or another that some old people seem to know. 

To make a long story short, I wasted a lot of time wanting the future before I realized that I was buying a lie. A lie that has been hard to unlearn. For the longest time I believed that the present moment would prove to be less important or less enjoyable than some future moment. Terms like "the real world" and "when I start my life" made me a slave to a future I really had no stake in. Focusing my energies and attentions on the belief that the future will be better than the present resulted in not a few bad habits:

1. First, by focusing on how the future would be better, or more meaningful, or more "real" (whatever that means) I was implicitly acknowledging that I was unhappy with my current circumstances. Living in the future made me incapable of appreciating what I actually had in the present. If I had been able to pull my head out of the sand and realize how good my actual day to day life was, if I was able to practice real gratitude, I wouldn't have needed to spend so much time trying to live in the future. Instead, my ingratitude kept me chained to some fantasy world that was never more real than the present moment I was avoiding. 

2. Instead of looking my circumstances in the eye, recognizing my ingratitude, my problems, and my opportunities like a man, I set my eyes on some shadowy distant idealized future in which everything would be better for some reason (Although I must confess, I am still subject to this temptation - frequently). The problem was that this view prevented me from changing the things about my life that I didn't like. If I had faced my problems instead of imagining a future without them, not only would I have been happier in the present, I also would have had a better shot at building the future that I wanted for myself. I didn't like my high school experience, (Even though I had great friends, a great family, and a whole host of other reasons to be happy) but instead of changing the things I didn't like and had control over (there were many) I choose to sulk and daydream about going to x prestigious college in y pretentious city and studying z pretentious major where I could become a pretentious leader in my pretentious field - despite the fact that I spent  zero time developing the drive, skills, and intelligence necessary to bring about that ridiculous future that seemed so certain to me in my day dreams. 

3. The lie made me unhappy. Like rubbing salt in a wound, my certain belief that the future would be better than the present only highlighted and inflamed the frustrating parts of my actual life. Like so many grievances, if I had only diverted my attention from them, they would have gone away. I was picking at a cut and only making it worse. I was licking chapped lips. Wallowing in my fantasy future gave me temporary comfort from my problems, but only made them worse in the long run by failing to face them or let them go. 

In his book, "Stumbling on Happiness" psychologist Daniel Gilbert writes about how terribly poor humans are at predicting what will make them happy latter on in life. "Most of us spend our lives steering ourselves toward the best of all possible futures, only to find that tomorrow rarely turns out as we had presumed. Why? ... when people try to imagine what the future will hold, they make some basic and consistent mistakes. Just as memory plays tricks on us when we try to look backward in time, so does imagination play tricks when we try to look forward." I find myself so often at the end of an endeavor, or goal, or project, and look back to find that I feel completely different about it than what I had predicted at the beginning. And yet I spend so much time living inside an unreasonable future.

It's so easy to get stuck in our heads with a whole pile of silly plans. We think, "How will I be happy? Well, I'll go to this school and get this degree, and then that will let me get this masters degree, which will let me enter this profession, which will let me get this pension, oh and along the way I'll get a wife, so I can have some kids to support me when I'm old, and I'll work till I'm sixty five. And then I'll cash my pension and retire to Florida, and buy a boat and wear a hat that says "#1 Grandpa" and THEN, I'll be happy." But if we live a life that only yields happiness at the end, what the hell were we doing the rest of the time? 

Happiness isn't about proper planning; it's about gratitude, which happens in the present.

As I write this I realize how much I still need to learn this lesson. I've got a long way to go. In general, I consider myself a man of half baked plans, and I have a hard time keeping my head out of the clouds. But in the end, I have no interest in leading a "carrot on a string" life.  I have no interest in chasing after some future dream that will supposedly yield a humble, wise, happy man - despite the fact that I put no effort into developing the character I wanted when I had the chance. I am interested in making decisions about my life. Here, now, on the ground. 

Gratitude means recognizing that each moment is as significant as the one preceding it, and the one following it. When you wake up, while you bathe, while you eat, while you sleep, while you do paperwork, when you're with your loved ones, when you are with people you dislike, when you're traveling, when you're on the train, when you're working, when you're playing, when you're arguing, flirting, joking, reading, crying, fighting, being bitter, being happy, being bored, being old, being young, Being, your life is happening. Seamlessly, inexorably, breath after breath. Gratitude means taking each moment, no matter how mundane, and arresting it, recognizing it, seeing it for the gift it is, and submitting to being in it. As it happens. One by one. 

Saturday, January 7, 2012


It is very difficult for me to sit and look at the times and circumstances in which I find myself and those around me, and not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of opportunity and challenge that we alone as a generation are privileged to face. This was in large part the topic of my previous post. Our time is a unique, chaotic, and beautiful one - if not brutal. In some sense, we are truly a lucky generation, and we need to recognize that fact.

However, there is another aspect of our times for which, I think, we are to be the most pitied. Even while we have access to tools and technologies unheard of by any age before us, we are also cursed with the terrible and seductive powers of abundant, meaningless, and fruitless pleasure. Never before has mankind been so able to distract himself. Never before have we had access to such myriad and varied ways of piddling a life away. Never before has man been so good at wasting time. 

Consider how you or I might choose to fill a small block of free time in the year 2012. Let's say, ten minutes. I think it would be fair to say that most of us would have the impulse during this small break to check the internet. For me, when it is available, this is my strongest temptation. Facebook. Twitter. Reddit. IMDB. Wikipedia. Your particular farmville clone. Snopes. XKCD. Yahoo. Etc. Etc. Or let's say your have a bigger span, maybe an hour or two. Why not watch a movie? Play some call of duty. Watch some Lost, or Bones, or 24, or whatever new pop sitcom or action serial is popular. Get back to farmville (Seriously, for pete's sake what is the appeal of this game?!) World of Warcraft. Whatever your particular vice (Recently mine has been watching the X-Files.)

Look. I'll let you decide what you consider to be a waste of time or not. It's your life and I don't care to defend or attack pedantic arguments about why such and such stupid waste of time is or isn't a stupid waste of time. I just think that at the end of the day, there will be a shamefully large amount of people who will be lying on their deathbed and feel embarrassed by how much time they spent playing "Angry Birds". 

Don't get me wrong, I am in the same thumb twiddling boat as everybody else. I recognize the herculean effort it takes to resist the simple endorphin releasing pleasures of youtube. It's hard to walk forward on the path that's adorned with so many neon signs. Especially when so many of us have nothing to walk toward. I think there are a couple big reasons why permanent distraction has become such a serious pitfall for our busy world.

Aside from the technological advances that have made such fantastic and addictive pleasures so abundant, which I think are more or less apparent, there is a huge ideological problem that's been forty or fifty years in the making (In America at least). It's an old and popular idea, but it's never been a good one for building and maintaining societies. In essence, it's the belief that pursuing personal gratification is an acceptable goal for a human life. In other words, "If it makes you happy, do it." In a sense, we all act in our own self interests at all times. However, by setting up personal, individual happiness as the most important goal of our lives, we've lost a lot of our ability to sacrifice immediate pleasures for more meaningful and lasting accomplishments. 

This particular form of hedonism (which is really as old as people are) has seriously eroded our ability to serve a cause greater than ourselves. Ideas like duty, commitment, loyalty, discipline, and service are not conductive to such a worldview, and are the first things to go when our lives don't seem to be serving our greatest personal interest. Especially in the absence of causes greater than ourselves to dedicate our short lives to. These sort of greater works that our grandfathers had unfortunately are seemingly unable to satisfy in the same way as they did before. We can serve a nation that commits actions we can't condone. We can give our lives in service to a religion that we don't believe in or doesn't work. We can dedicate our lives to a company that will gamble away our pensions. We can lay down our lives for a marriage that statistically is bound to fail, and where such a failure is socially acceptable. Long story short, the growing distrust of our oldest institutions, institutions that at one time gave our lives meaning, now leave us in a world without a compass bigger or truer than our own desires. 

But I think there is another big reason why we have become so excellent at wasting time. Advances in medicine have changed the way we look at death, and therefore, how we look at time. Our ancestors we're considered lucky if they could scrape out a meager 40 or 50 years of hard labour, the lion's share of which was pure toil - survival itself was a major chore. Today, most of us expect at best, and at worst feel entitled to, a long life of 70 or 80 years of relative ease. A family and a house. A steady job. Certainly no want for food. And anyone who doesn't achieve these milestones is considered a sad and unlucky case, however exceptional nonetheless. Only a hundred years ago, millions of young men and women were cut down at 19 and 20 to war and disease. An entire generation, lost. Today, a man who dies at fifty is claimed - with perhaps some legitimacy - to have been unfairly taken at such a young and blossoming age. 

In brief, because our highest commitment is to our own pleasure, due to the crumbling or absence of higher causes, and the seemingly distant day of our deaths are some big reasons why we can spend two hours in a day playing words with friends. 

But the truth is, we have no guarantee of that time. I'll probably be dead a hundred years from now. But there's a chance that I could die later today. The real truth is old and tired, but true: we can't add an hour to our lives. Our time is not our own, and what we are given, however brief, is a gift. 

Recently I've become obsessed with the following question. It's become the first thought I have when I wake up, and the last thought I have before I fall asleep. It's a frightening idea, and perhaps morbid, but a sobering one. The question I find myself asking most often these days is this: if you die today, what will you have to show for it?

I've had an excellent and healthy 21 years, and God willing I'll have another 20 more. But there is simply no guarantee that we will wake up tomorrow. It takes incredible willpower to keep this truth in mind everyday, especially when so much of that time is spent in monotony and tedium. What man truly understands that he is dying daily? But remember, gratitude is all about having the proper perspective, and the honest truth is that these twenty one years I have enjoyed; I did nothing to earn them. And any time beyond that is not entitled to me, but simply a gift over which I have no control. 

I say this not to be morbid or depressing. I do say this to scare you, because we should be afraid of wasting a life that is not ours to waste. 

Gratitude can be a motivating force. We often think of gratitude as a reflective, passive attitude. We look back at the things we've been given, and then feel grateful. However, real gratitude is about recognizing our gifts and responding appropriately. I don't know what the appropriate response is to the fact that our days are numbered, however I bet that it doesn't involve a facebook app. 

Imagine a man who was given twenty thousand dollars. His benefactor declares that the money is his to do whatever he wants with, just as long as he stayed reasonably in touch. Many years later the benefactor and the man run into each other, and the rich man asks how the young man spent the money he had given him. He looks down at his shoes, shrugs, and with a whimper he explains: "Well, I spent a couple hundred on an xbox, that was probably the first thing. Then I bought a car, but I crashed it. Ahhh. I went to this fancy restaurant I like a lot. I gave some to my buddy Ron because we wanted to buy a boat. I lost a bunch in this pyramid scheme. Oh I gave some to charity! But that was pretty much just what I had left over after the trip to Hawaii...So um. Yeah that's about it. Thanks a lot by the way. I really appreciated it." 

That's not what gratitude looks like. Gratitude takes a gift and puts it forward. Gratitude takes time and spends it on others. 

A day is going to come when you will be called to account for every hour you had and spent. Either by God or by your own conscience, you're going to ask yourself, "What have I to show for my life? What did I do with my youth when I had it? What I do with my older years, that so many are denied? Did I do everything I possibly could have to use it well?" We're human, we all have regrets, we all waste time. But a deep, abiding gratitude for our lives and for the time that has been given to us will produce an appropriate response. The grateful do not squander their gifts, and hopefully true gratitude can help us from squandering our very lives. 

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Big Picture

Hello faithful readers. I took last week off for Christmas, but here is something new that I hope you'll enjoy:

There is a particular style of painting and literature which was popular during the enlightenment that I really enjoy. It only lasted for a few years, but it was popular with philosophers because of it's subject matter. Essentially, painters in this style would attempt to recreate the feeling experienced when witnessing an act of nature so big that it completely dwarfs all human perspective. This feeling was called "The Sublime." For an example, you might have this sensation when looking at a stormy ocean, or the grand canyon, or looking down from a mountaintop or an erupting volcano.  It's something between what we might call "awe", "wonder", and "fear". These paintings were often frightening, as they demonstrated the awesome power of nature to destroy, in dynamic and forceful action. This particular sensation is something like the "fear of God" talked about in religious circles, to which the only reasonable response is to watch in silence, mouth agape. A painting in this style intended to get the following points across:

1. Nature is powerful
2. People are small
3. Nature is BIG. Too big to be able to wrap your head around in fact. 

Philosophers like Kant appreciated this style specifically for this third point; seeing sublime paintings forced a person to stretch their brain. If you've ever tried to wrap your head around the idea of infinity you get close to what we're talking about here. Trying to get the right perspective regarding our own size in a massive universe is incredibly difficult even for us today. Interestingly, most thinkers didn't respond to sublime paintings with the kind of humility and helplessness that you and I might associate with being small people in a big world. In fact, while sublime paintings did focus on how small people were in comparison to nature, they also focus on how impressive it was that such small people could navigate, survive, and even conquer such massive displays of natural force. During the enlightenment, many such paintings highlighted and emphasized man's ability to conquer any horizon and reach any goal. 

This idea of the sublime is now more important and present than ever before. Because we're assaulted with it everyday. 

You and I live in the rarest and most unique part of human history to date. Advances in science and technology have come upon us so incredibly quickly that life as a human being is fundamentally different than it was for our great grandparents. The past hundred years has yielded an explosion in growth and understanding that has changed the way humans look and interact with the world. For the first time in our history as a species, we have the ability to affect the weather, which has always been for us a source of this sublime intuition - something incomprehensibly big, and beyond our control or influence. We have the ability to destroy cities, if not nations, in a single moment. The technology the average American carries around in their pocket every day is a thousand times more complex than the technology they used to send people to space over forty years ago

There is a new sense of the Sublime in the postmodern world. Instead of experiencing this awe at witnessing acts of nature, we get this sensation when we try and comprehend the complexity and magnitude of human society and institutions. The scope of the human race, government, technology, art, science, and the massive infrastructure we've built to support ourselves has become so sprawling, vast, and labyrinthine that it is impossible for a single human mind to comprehend it all at once. Just try and imagine all that goes into running a single large city, in a single day. What it takes to produce the electricity, water, fuel, waste disposal, building material necessary to run New York, or London, not to mention all of the governance required, traffic laws, safety codes, measurement standards, health codes, shipping, imports, exports, money, food etc. Or the computers that have become such a fundamental part of the functioning of the human race, computers that even very intelligent and educated individuals aren't entirely sure how they work at a very basic level. The complex organism of a human city is seemingly held together by magic. And that's just a single city on a single day! The reality is that society operates at this level of complexity everywhere, all the time

Here is a great example of this new sublime we get from looking at the human race as whole. It's a graph of all of the existent wealth in the world. The sheer size of the graph itself is enough to produce the same feeling we get from looking at pictures of Niagara Falls or Yosemite. 

Not to mention the ever accelerating progress of science, technology, and computers. Gene therapy, particle accelerators, human and technological interface, cloning, the Internet, artificial intelligence. Some scientists even believe that human beings will achieve practical immortality within our lifetimes

We live in a big world. 

A world unlike any experienced by our ancestors since the dawn of man. We live in a scary world as well. A world in which everything that we've come to know and depend on for millenia hangs by a thread. A world where EVERYTHING could change in a single day. EVERYTHING is complicated. EVERYTHING is crazy. EVERYTHING is going faster and faster and faster. 

Ok. Take a breath. Let's bring this back to Earth. What does this have to do with gratitude? Well, in pursuit of our goal of daily, active, practical gratitude, I find that it helps me to always keep one eye on the big picture. To look at the world we live in, our place and time, and recognize how inconceivably lucky we are to live in such a strange and unique period. The opportunities and challenges that we face now are some of the biggest our race has ever seen, and are completely different from the problems we've seen before this point. Anything can happen. It's a new world and we, some seven billion people out of presumably fifty billion that have ever lived on Earth, are the ones that get to see it. It becomes hard to complain about Starbucks being out of that one latte flavor you like when you consider that, for the first time, nearly the whole of human knowledge is available, anywhere, anytime, for free, at your fingertips. Like I've mentioned before here, gratitude is all about having the right perspective. Being able to sit down and recognize your piece of the incomprehensibly huge puzzle is part of it.

Secondly, in an increasingly unreliable and foreign world, we are in desperate need of some solid psychological tools to handle the mess. It's easy to go crazy or get scared when we look at the world at large and where things are going. All humans, all seven billion of us, have one little hand on one little ear of a mammoth beast called society - not one of us knows where it's going or what to do with it. But one thing we can do, one thing that has been proven to increase our ability to cope with change, is practice gratitude. Gratitude is an extremely practical and dependable tool in an undependable world. Things may get crazier and crazier, but at least we get to watch the show. That's no small blessing if you can get your head around it. It's hard to see it without getting knocked over, but being grateful for the big picture is the first step toward being able to cope with it. 

Friday, December 16, 2011


As I've spent these past several weeks thinking and writing about gratitude, two points in particular have become particularly curious to me.

The first is the abrupt and explosive appearance of a movement of people all across the globe who are concerned with the ethical and appropriate distribution of resources. Now, I don't pretend to know enough about the Occupy movement to write about it in any real capacity, and I don't intend to here, but it is interesting to me that the real question on everyone's mind right now is about what we can reasonably expect to have. Or rather, how a certain minority has exceeded the amount of wealth a person can reasonably expect to posses. It's a movement about possession. About ownership.
I mean, even the name "Occupy" means to "take possession of". It's about who owns what, why, how, and whether or not they should. 

The second interesting thing that I've come across in my writing is that gratitude, as an emotional resource, applies equally to everyone no matter what their economic status is. Everyone is called to be grateful, rich and poor alike. Whether we are the 99% or the 1% we need to have the same orientation of gratitude toward our belongings. 

But today I want to talk about the greatest enemy to gratitude, and I believe happiness in general: that is the spirit of entitlement. Ownership. Possession.

Like I said earlier, I don't have any authority to comment on the occupy movement, but I feel obligated to mention a few things in regards to gratitude and entitlement. The movement, and it's opposition, are concerned with entitlement. The 1% feels entitled to the ability to accumulate as much wealth as humanly possible, by virtue of their skills, intelligence, education, background, luck, power, connections, etc. regardless of the economic conditions of others, and regardless of the moral atrocities that are committed in pursuit of that wealth. The 99% feels entitled to a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, or at least to a more reasonable gap between rich and poor - as well as the right to not be exploited by the obscenely wealthy. But the inescapable truth and irony that I personally have had a difficult time getting around are the demographics of the occupy movement. The movement, which originally began in the United States, is very diverse in age, race, religion, and surprisingly, income. According to a study by the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, 50% of the original protesters were employed full time, and 13% made over $75,000 a year. Not that this undermines the causes or legitimacy of the Occupy movement, but I can't help thinking, what about the billions of impoverished persons across the globe who live on less than 2 dollars a day?

The cry of the 99% for reasonable standards of wealth is admirable, but I can't help looking at the larger picture and think of the billions who go without food, water, adequate medical supplies, education, proper housing, etc. If the Occupy movement is about what we can reasonably expect to claim ownership over, what happens when we turn that magnifying glass on our own lives?

Today I'm going to leave the hard work of this post to C.S. Lewis and a quote of his regarding entitlement and ownership in his book "The Screwtape Letters." He has already said much better than I could, exactly the idea that I want to convey regarding entitlement as an enemy to happiness.

The book is a fictional collection of letters between two devils. The older more experienced devil, Screwtape, is here advising his young nephew, Wormwood, on using the concept of ownership to attack his victims. 

"Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury.
And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been
denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient can be induced to
make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now
you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to
find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal
unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked
forward to a quiet evening), or the friend's talkative wife (turning up when he
looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear.
Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his
courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards
his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore
zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption "My time is my own". Let him
have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four
hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has
to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion
which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to
doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some
mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

You have here a delicate task. The assumption which you want him to go on making
is so absurd that, if once it is questioned, even we cannot find a shred of
argument in its defence. The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of
time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon
his chattels. He is also, in theory, committed a total service of the Enemy; and
if the Enemy appeared to him in bodily form and demanded that total service for
even one day, he would not refuse. He would be greatly relieved if that one day
involved nothing harder than listening to the conversation of a foolish woman;
and he would be relieved almost to the pitch of disappointment if for one
half-hour in that day the Enemy said "Now you may go and amuse yourself". Now if
he thinks about his assumption for a moment, even he is bound to realise that he
is actually in this situation every day. When I speak of preserving this
assumption in his mind, therefore, the last thing I mean you to do is to furnish
him with arguments in its defence. There aren't any. Your task is purely
negative. Don't let his thoughts come anywhere near it. Wrap a darkness about
it, and in the centre of that darkness let his sense of ownership-in-Time lie
silent, uninspected, and operative.

The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are
always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in
Hell and we must keep them doing so. Much of the modern resistance to chastity
comes from men's belief that they "own" their bodies—those vast and perilous
estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find
themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure
of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love's
sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise
counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and
the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.
We produce this sense of ownership not only by pride but by confusion. We teach
them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely
graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my
wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country", to "my God". They can be
taught to reduce all these senses to that of "my boots", the "my" of ownership.
Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by "my Teddy-bear" not the old
imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for
that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but "the
bear I can pull to pieces if I like". And at the other end of the scale, we have
taught men to say "My God" in a sense not really very different from "My boots",
meaning "The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I
exploit from the pulpit—the God I have done a corner in". And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In he long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say "Mine" of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong—certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says "Mine" of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it: Our Father hopes in the end to say "Mine" of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest,
Your affectionate uncle

Friday, December 9, 2011

Giving Thanks in All Things

A good friend of mine recently sent me this article, written by Seth Hahne, concerning gratitude in the United States. it's an excellent and thought provoking article that I highly suggest you read in full, but in summary the author's point is this: In a modern industrialized economy like that of the United States, many of the blessings we take for granted every day are available to us through the coercion or exploitation of other human beings. In brief, the costs of living in a first world nation are often born on the backs of those in developing countries. Mr. Hahne writes: 

"Even as we recognize just how good, easy, and comfortable we have it, it doesn’t take a lot of reflection to remember that much of the fruits we enjoy come at a human cost. The blessings for which we are to be thankful are, in a manner, ill-gotten gains. Materials used in our laptops and iPads are ethically dubious. The diamonds on our engagement rings are ethically dubious. Materials used in tech industries are ethically dubious. The health and welfare of those producing these materials is a cost most of us are blithely willing to pay because a) those costs are paid remotely, b) convenience is one of our foremost idols, and c) everyone else is doing it."

Another friend led me to this rather disturbing link, which, following a series of questions about one's consumption habits, estimates how many people working in slave labor conditions around the world support your lifestyle. I was distressed to find that my own lifestyle, despite living a rather spartan bachelor life (By American standards) in a developing country, requires roughly 21 slaves internationally to sustain it. It's a shameful fact of our time that, despite the best of intentions by many, it is almost impossible to live a comfortable life in an industrialized nation in a globalized economy without benefiting from the exploitation of some other human being in some other part of the world. 

The author's question is this: How can we be thankful for blessings gained by exploiting the weak?

In the Bible, we read the command in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 to "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."

Sometimes I wonder how I am justified in being able to write about gratitude. Considering I'm a young, educated, American male, with a good job, good health, relatively unlimited economic and legal freedom, with a loving family, healthy social and spiritual life, etc. It's easy for me to be grateful. But how dare I write about gratitude to those who are ill, dying, poor, crippled, oppressed, old, lonely, and unhappy? Especially when some of the advantages that I've had in life came directly from the oppression of other human beings? What right do I have? I'll be honest, these and ideas like them have caused me no little distress. 

But what it comes down to is this: I don't write about gratitude because I think it's a moral imperative (although I do think that). I don't write about gratitude because I want to tell other people how to feel or how to live. I don't want to "sell" gratefulness. I write about gratitude because I sincerely believe and am committed to the fact that a grateful life is the best and healthiest way to live - for everyone.  It's been clinically shown that gratitude helps people to lead a happy, healthy life - no matter their socioeconomic position. I have been so blessed to be grateful in my abundance, how much more so the one who can be grateful in their poverty? 

There is always something to be grateful for. Those who are strong enough to find that thing, to be grateful in abject misery, are powerful, graceful, admirable people. 

How can we be grateful in a cancer ward? How can we be grateful in divorce court? At a funeral? In the gutter? How can we be grateful at a banquette table that's been paid for by the blood and sweat of the weak and oppressed?

Gratitude is a skill. We increase our proficiency in that skill by daily practice. A soldier or policeman trains his body every day, for the single moment in his career when that training will count. A swimmer trains his body every day, so that he will perform well on race day. In the same way, we need to practice gratitude in our daily abundance so that we can be grateful even when we have nothing. One of my favorite anonymous quotes goes like this:

"Mind your thoughts, they become your words.
Mind your words, they become your actions.
Mind your actions, they become your habits.
Mind your habits, they become your character.
Mind your character, it determines your destiny." 

By slowly training our minds to be in a constant state of gratitude, by arresting every thought and making it submit, by actively taking control of what and how we think, we train ourselves to become grateful people. Becoming a grateful person may require a 180 degree turn, taken one degree at a time. We may have to actively search for things in our lives to be grateful for, but they are there. It may be no more than a functioning body, a few moments with a friend, good weather, the absence of some other trial or pain, a clean mind. I'm grateful for people who are happy to see me, for objects that have a satisfying weight, for a good high five or handshake. The little things may be little, but some people don't have even these things, and still manage to be grateful - because they have practiced and mastered the art of gratitude. 

A few weeks ago I was ill with a sore throat. It was hard to concentrate on being grateful when I had this minor irritating pain to deal with. But whenever I was feeling irritated or aggravated by my illness, I tried to actively stop my thought process, and replace the thought with a grateful one. One thing that I try to remember when I'm feeling sick is that without minor illnesses, pains, and injuries, we would be unable to recognize how wonderful it is when our bodies are healthy and functioning. How sweet it is to wake up after a long illness, and feel fine and healthy again. But how can we expect ourselves to be grateful when we're sick if we didn't practice being grateful in our health? 

This leads me back to Mr. Hahne's question (which he answers himself very gracefully by the way). How can we be thankful for ill gotten gains? Well, the only real answer is that we need to actively investigate and flee from the evil of slavery in all forms, we have to decide with our wallets and with our lifestyle, whenever possible, to choose ethically produced goods and services.

However, recognizing the sad impossibility of living a life of perfectly ethical consumption, I propose a second question: Which is worse, to enjoy the fruits of exploitation with gratitude, reverence, and awareness of the sacrifice that others have made? Or to enjoy those same fruits with ignorance, greed, and ungratefulness? I propose the former. 

Does this mean we should be grateful for injustice, exploitation, and slavery? No. Absolutely not. I hate injustice. I hate having to choose the lesser of two evils, and I absolutely abhor any economic system so fundamentally based on exploitation and coercion. But when it comes down to living in the real world of corruption, crime and brutality: it is absolutely imperative that we reverently and gratefully accept our blessings, while condemning and fleeing from the sin and crime that have brought us those same blessings.

If our electronics are assembled from resources harvested by children, if our shoes are built by slave laborers, if we really can't afford or don't have access to ethically produced versions of the things we actually need, then we'd better damn well recognize the fact that someone else suffered so we could have something nice. We have a moral obligation to those people to be at least grateful for their pains, while at the same time actively working toward the emancipation, respect, and economic health of all people - insofar as it is within our power. 

Friday, December 2, 2011

How to Receive a Gift Well

It's not as easy as it sounds. It's Christmas morning, in your hands you hold a bright wrapped box, your great aunt is staring at you with such anticipation, she looked for months all over town to find this for you and she is CERTAIN that you will LOVE it. You open the box to find the most offensive sweater imaginable. You're suddenly Ralphie from "A Christmas Story," you expected a red ryder BB gun; you got a bunny suit. You glance up at your aunt's expectant face. It's crunch time. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. What do you do? Do you tell her how you really feel about her gift? Do you lie through your teeth? There's got to be a better way!

Psychological research has shown that gift giving and receiving is an incredibly complex human interaction. In the moment when we put something that was ours into the hands of someone else, incredible neurological and emotional activity is going on in the brains of both parties. Cultures across the planet and throughout history have developed incredibly complex rituals and systems to govern how and when a person should give a gift, and how a person should behave when receiving a gift. Despite the fact that in casual modern America social customs are on the whole more relaxed, it's worth our time to recognize the unique sociological interaction of gift receiving and investigate how we can make exchanging gifts more rewarding and meaningful for all parties involved.

Receiving a gift can be treacherous. Someone has, presumably, expended their own free time, money, and thought on getting you a gift. If it's something you like, maybe it's not hard to be grateful and express that gratitude. If it's something you didn't expect or don't actually want, this can be harder. While perhaps not a proper art like giving a gift, I prefer to think of receiving a gift as a skill that requires great delicacy and endurance - like ice skating, or boxing. Or like navigating an oil tanker through a mass of icebergs. And as a skill, practice is essential to getting good at receiving gifts, which can be done with varying degrees of success.
A gift can be received poorly. That is, without tact, grace, or gratitude. The goal of receiving a gift well is to be genuinely grateful, graceful, and tactful toward the giver while also being honest. There is never a need for deception when receiving a gift. It is my firm belief that you can receive any gift well, no matter how awful, by simply acknowledging and remembering certain truths, without having to deceive anyone. In other words, you can always say thanks, and mean it. Granted, you will obviously prefer some gifts to others. This is where gratitude and grace, as skills, come into play. Today we're going to cover some basics to help us receive all of our gifts with genuine gratitude. But first, let's take some time to look at what goes on when a gift is given.

It's important for both givers and receivers to recognize this incredibly important fact: giving a gift puts a burden on the recipient. That's right, by giving someone a gift you are giving them an obligation - socially, psychologically, and perhaps economically. Advertisers have known for decades that giving someone something puts them in a position of weakness. By giving someone something for free - it could be anything, a frisbee, a bumper sticker, movie tickets, a coupon, even something as trivial as a handbill - you create a psychological discomfort in the recipient. Unconsciously, the recipient feels indebted to the giver and will be more willing to do what they ask in order to resolve that discomfort. Humans have a hard time receiving gifts! We like to feel as though we've earned everything we've gotten, we like to have our debts settled, and we don't like to feel as though we owe someone. This is why political parties and religious groups give out candy bars and stickers, because we're more likely to listen to them if they've given something to us because we feel as though we owe them.

Let me tell a story to illustrate this point. In college, a couple fellow students and I were hired by one of our professors to do some work at her house. The three of us did some light yardwork and our host made us a delicious lunch. At the end of the day our professor gave us a little cash for our effort. However, one of the students, trying to be generous, refused to accept payment for his work. A small argument ensued as the professor insisted the student take the money. The student, in his attempt to be gracious, stubbornly refused. But even though this student had the best and most gracious of intentions, he was actually denying our professor the psychological satisfaction of a healthy and fair business transaction. By refusing the $20, my friend actually left our professor with a debt that she felt she needed to pay. At the end of the day I had to ask myself what she, the established suburban professor, wanted more: $20, or the knowledge that she had helped out some students she liked by providing them with honest labor. By accepting a gift gracefully, we are often actually giving the gift of a settled account, a clear balance, a clean debt between you and the giver. In other words, receiving a gift well is a gift in and of itself. 

When someone gives a gift, it is usually the case that the giver actually experiences a greater satisfaction at the experience than the receiver does. Therefore, giving and receiving a gift is not a one way transaction - it is a complex sociological phenomenon in which both parties play an important role. When we receive a gift, our giver expects something of us. I recognize that this contradicts our original definition of a gift as something for which no reciprocation is expected. However, as human beings, givers expect an appropriate expression of gratitude and recognition of their hard work and sacrifice. It is therefore our duty, as good gift givers, good gift receivers, and good people, to play our part and fulfill this important social role.  

Ok, that having been said, let's get into how to receive a gift with grace. Now, like I said previously, I believe that the secret to accepting a gift with gratitude is keeping in mind certain truths. By adopting a certain mindset that prepares one to be grateful, it will be easier to achieve our goal of receiving a gift gratefully, tactfully, and most importantly, honestly. So let's take a look at three fundamental gift receiving axioms:

1. No matter how bad it is, it's a gift. Keep this in mind. Your giver may have put zero thought into what they got you, they may have given you something so thoughtlessly as to be offensive, they may have no real connection or feelings for you, they may have only gotten you something because of social pressures that made them feel obligated to get you something. It could be a very bad gift. But none of that matters; it's still a gift. This person has given you an object, free of cost. No one put a gun to their head. They gave it to you and, at least nominally, there is no expectation of payment or reciprocation. Therefore, if you recognize that someone has, in essence, given you something for nothing, than it should be easier to accept with gratitude. You didn't do anything to earn this gift, and you are not entitled to it. On holidays where people usually receive gifts, I always try and trick myself into believing that It's just like any other day, and that I have no reason to expect a gift. That way, when a gift comes, no matter how bad, it's a welcome surprise. Imagine how excited you would be if your mom got you a set of golf clubs, even though you don't golf, on any typical day of the year. It would seem like such a nice, strange, graceful thing to do. You might even consider taking up golf now that you have some clubs. But now, just because it's your birthday, you feel that she was obligated to get you something you would like, and so now have the right to be offended? That's no good. In a later post I'll detail further how entitlement is the enemy of gratitude. For now it will suffice to know that you are not entitled to getting good gifts. They're gifts. If you don't expect anything, you won't be disappointed. 

2. Barring exceptional cases, the giver likes you and is trying to show you. Give him the benefit of the doubt. If you came across a bad painting, you would never think, "Wow, what a rotten person that painter must be. I am personally offended at how bad this painting is." No. Just because a person is not the most skilled in the art of gift giving, it does not mean that they are actively trying to irritate you. They are probably trying their best. It's incredibly important to recognize that this person is doing something to actively show you that they care about you, or they're trying at least. That fact alone is pretty rare if you think about it, and therefore should be appreciated. How often do people actively go out of their way to show that they love you? It's worth thinking about that grandma's creepy doll collection is her most prized possession, and now she wants to share it with you. I suppose this is merely a reiteration on the old cliche that "It's the thought that counts." But, it's cliche for a reason. 

3. You can find beauty in anything, if you look hard enough. Every gift has a gem hidden in it if you're willing to work at it. This may seem hard to believe, but by thinking hard about that awful gift, you will be surprised at the value you can find in it. Sure, you might never be caught dead wearing that tie your sister got you with the penguins on it that are wearing sunglasses. But try imagining what she must have been thinking when she chose, out of all those other, reasonable, sensible ties, that THIS tie - this one fits PERFECTLY. She saw something in it, you can too. Remember, if you can't find a single thing that you like about it, when she asks, "Do you like it?" you will either have to lie or say no. Maybe she thinks of you as a funny, warm, unique person - it's that element of your personality and your relationship that she chose to highlight and celebrate with this unfortunate gift. The advice in #2 goes a long way; if you give someone the benefit of the doubt, it will be easier to find something of value in their gift. Besides, if you just show to your giver that you are thinking about their gift, that may be enough for them to be satisfied. Get creative. Where was it made? What can you do with it, other than it's intended purpose? What is this gift actually saying about me, the giver, and our relationship? If nothing else you can appreciate it for the story you'll have about it later, or the perfect example of a bad gift you now proudly own. This is one time where it actually helps to be a hipster, because if you can't like something genuinely, you can always like it ironically. I'm sure that sweater will work perfectly at the ugly sweater party you have coming up later this holiday season. 

That wraps up this three part series on the Art of Giving and Receiving gifts. Armed with this knowledge, I hope that your holidays are vastly more meaningful as you take time to get good gifts, think about the ones you love, and receive their blessings with grace and gratitude. Remember that gifts are about relationship and about showing others how you love them, not about the gifts themselves. By looking deeply behind the gifts we give, and the gifts we receive, we will see what each gift is really intended to say; gratitude will come easily and joy along with it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

An Introduction to the Art of Gift Giving

Perhaps you've heard the story of the Gift of the Magi. Two lovers who were very poor wanted to get each other Christmas gifts, even though they had both agreed that they couldn't afford to get gifts that year. The man spotted one day a jewel encrusted comb of great beauty. So he pawned his prized possession, his grandfather's pocket watch, so that he could buy his wife this gift. The wife one day found a gold watch chain that would look perfectly on her husbands watch. Having no money to buy the chain, she cut her long silky hair and sold it to buy her husband this gift. On Christmas day the two revealed what they had sacrificed to show the other how they loved them, and despite having no use for the gifts, they realized that they had a love that could withstand great sacrifice. 

What does it take to give good gifts? What can we do to become skilled at the art of gift giving? Well, Michael Angelo started by putting paint on canvas. If we want to be masters at expressing our gratitude, then we have to start at the beginning. This is part two in a three part series on the Art of Giving and Receiving gifts. Today I want to talk about how to give a good gift. Consider this an Intro to Beginners Gift Giving. I want to give here some basics on how to start giving good, real, meaningful gifts. Let's open our paint set and get started. 

As I see it, a gift can have value in two categories: functionality or practicality, and sentimental or personal value. I find that most gifts can be found along a spectrum between the two:

A broken treadmill is an awful gift, so are pictures of strangers. They have no practical or personal value. Your goal is strike a perfect balance between the two.Yes, that home made sweater took a lot of soul to make, but will they actually wear it? Cash is tacky, but useful. (Note. in my opinion, stay away from gift cards. They are less useful than cash, and try to affect emotional significance by saying, "Hey! I really know very little about you, but I assume that you can probably find something at Barnes and Noble/Best Buy/Other anonymous department store." Do the work, get them a real gift.) In giving a gift, we often try to be smarter than the person receiving the gift. We think, "What's something this person really needs or wants, but would never buy for themselves?" This is very difficult. Most of the time, if they wanted it, they could buy it themselves. You could run the risk of buying them something they can't afford, but that gift often becomes a shame and a burden to both of you. Or you could buy them something you know they don't have or haven't thought to buy for themselves, and run the risk of getting them something they don't actually want or wont use. 

We often start the whole gift giving process off on the wrong foot by asking, "What will this person want?" Instead of asking, "What will tell them how grateful I am for them?" Don't get me wrong, it's important to take what they want into account - but gift giving should revolve around the core question of how to love your recipient, not around getting them what they want. 

For this reason, and many others, I prefer homemade gifts. They have more character, usually take more time, and express more of the person giving and receiving the gift. The problem here is that a homemade gift often sacrifices practicality. These are the kinds of gifts children get their parents. Drawings on the fridge, popsicle stick picture frames, painted rock paper weights, etc. Parents love them because their kids made them, not because they really needed a paper weight. Unfortunately, we believe that we can't get away with this as adults. However the best gifts I have received have been made, albeit skillfully, by hand. One of the best gifts I ever received was from my Mom. I had no idea that she could draw, but for some reason she decided to give me a drawing of a dolphin that she had made into a refrigerator magnet. Why a dolphin? I have no idea. But it was an excellent gift because she made it, for me, to the best of her ability. It was a great drawing and I could use it to boot. Personal + functional = great gift. 

Frankly, I think we too often air on the practical side and buy gifts that have little personality. Like painting in black and white, we buy gifts for people at the same stores they are buying gifts for other people. If you would rather buy a gift than make one, why not find them something that would be hard for them to get themselves? Perhaps something at a garage sale, or antique store, or on ebay. Get them something that not anyone can get. It may sound rude at first to get them something that's been used, but perhaps they would like something with a little more color than X new video game or anonymous best seller - which they could probably buy themselves if they really wanted. 

What you need to give a good gift

So now that we've covered some basic gift theory, let's see what the ingredients of a good gift include. In my experience, all good gifts consist of four primary ingredients. Without these, your gift will be doomed to mediocrity. (Not that all mediocre gifts are bad, as we shall see. Occasionally a spontaneous gift with little forethought is the most perfect one. As with all art forms, a novice knows the rules, a master knows the exceptions.) So what goes into a good gift?

-Time - A good gift takes time. Time to decide what to get. Time to find it. Time to make it. Time to present it properly. This is why a good gift is so rare. The more time put into a gift, the better it is. It really depends on how much time you are willing to invest. For me this is that hardest part of giving a gift. Sometimes you may spend hours carefully deciding what you want to say with your gift, choosing what object would express that idea well, formulating a picture or idea in your mind, and systematically collecting or assembling each component of your gift, painting, sanding, knitting, welding, building. Or perhaps you may search garage sales and thrift stores religiously, surfing ebay compulsively looking for who knows what, until you stumble upon the perfect thing for a certain person like a flash of lightning. Until you have that sense of certainty about your gift, you haven't put in enough time. When you can say, "That is it!" with all assurance, you're golden. If ever think about your gift, "Well, this will do I suppose," even for a moment, you have chosen a mediocre gift. Investing time into your gift shows that you are willing to pay a cost for your recipient, which brings me to my next point.
-Cost - A good gift should cost you something. Now, this isn't necessarily money. Perhaps it's time, or emotional resources, or a good deal of research, creativity, and hard work. When we are willing to settle on cash or gift cards, we are saying precisely, "I am willing to spend 50 American dollars and 3 minutes of thought on you. No more, no less." I think the cost of a good gift should be greater, and more ambiguous. Perhaps your gift says, "I am willing to spend four hours thinking about you, glue, varnish, paint, $25, 12 working man hours, and a hammered thumb on getting you a good gift." That's more like it. The best gift I ever received was from a friend in college. It's a small cushioned kneeling pad used for prayer that my friend had sown an image of a thorny crown upon. It took her months to make. It's a beautiful thing. It has immense personal value, and I used it every day in the states. But what made it the perfect gift is that it reflected our relationship, and uniquely expressed both of our personalities. Her gift was enriched because of the context. 
-Context - None of these rules are hard and fast. There are times when cash is the most sincere and valuable gift a person can give. There are times when a delicate handmade gift is wildly inappropriate. It all depends on the context. Remember, a gift expresses the meaning of a relationship between one person and another person (or couple, or group of people). It should therefore reflect the unique characteristics of that relationship. A good gift has some history behind it. It has a story.  It should be the sum of all the experiences, conversations, struggles, reconciliations, good times, and bad that you have shared with that person. A good gift for one person is a terrible gift for another. Therefore, the deeper relationship you have with the person, the greater potential you have to give a meaningful gift. The context of a gift is often the hardest to navigate, it really takes some delicacy and artfulness to do it well. But when considered with precision, it is context that gives a gift its meaning. 

-Love - A gift can't express what isn't there. Unless you genuinely love and feel gratitude toward your recipient, how can you possibly give them a good gift? In fact, what's the point of getting a gift for someone you don't love? A good gift cannot be given under compulsion. This is why I'm generally against secret santas and other games like it. This is also why it's a shame that gift giving has been marginalized to Christmas, Valentines, and birthdays. The spontaneity and unexpectedness of a gift is a supremely important tool in our gift giving toolbox. Why? Because an unexpected gift says, "The love I have for you is not restricted to the time of the year when I'm expected to get something for you." A gift given under compulsion isn't a gift, it's a payment. A tax. Whereas a gift given out of love is immediately recognized. Taking gift giving seriously may mean that you actually end up giving less gifts that you are used to. That's ok. After all, gifts are about quality, not quantity. And a mediocre gift, given without love, will be soon forgotten. 

I realize that this is a lot to ask, especially for those who are expected to give several gifts to multiple people each year. Giving a good gift costs a lot of personal resources. If I could give only one gift a year to one person, but have it be a truly good gift, I would do so in a heartbeat. Most of the time I would rather not receive a gift at all than receive one that had little meaning or effort behind it. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I would rather that the giver save their resources for his or her own needs than spend them getting a gift that doesn't work. That being said, receiving a gift is almost as delicate an art as giving one. Next week, I'll complete this series by talking about how to receive a gift well, with grace and gratitude.