We’re constantly honing our games, trying to get better at everything: closing the deal, shivering her timbers, floating the short-side bunker shot. Generally, we’re nuts about getting every edge. But there’s one powerful and easy-to-seize life-enhancer that most of us leave on the table. Except for once-a-year Thanksgiving lip service over pumpkin pie and yams, men are truly washouts at gratitude.
As blessed as many of us are, you’d think that thankfulness would be busting out all over, but not so. Most men are ungrateful bastards. I say this not in indictment, but in brotherhood. I’ve been as lucky as a man can be, and yet I’m an ungrateful jerk, way too immersed in the headlong lurch of getting-and-going to stop and savor the thousand flowers that have bloomed.
If you want an excuse, here it is. Men are weaned on ambitions and imperatives that incline us away from gratitude and toward discontent and envy. The very energies that make us so assertive, and consequently so prosperous, also make us unappreciative of the harvest those virtues help us reap. You know that frontier in your head? That motivating idea of bigger and better and more and I-wonder-what’s-over-that-hill?
Well, gratitude grows best on this side of the hill, in right-here and right-now, not the land of if-only and someday. And you know that self-made man who carves his life with his own two hands? Well, he doesn’t always notice how much others have done for him. And that full-throttle, go-go guy we so admire? Well, he frequently gets where he’s going, but he doesn’t often enjoy the ride. Every single trait that is congenial to gratitude, every attentiveness of the heart, gets squashed by the hard-driving cowboy-capitalist we are exhorted to be from the moment someone shouts, “It’s a boy.” Gratitude is for your mother; the old man is busy fixing the roof.
If your bottom-line mind is asking, “Who cares? What’s in gratitude for me?” The answer is More than you think. First off, countless studies have shown that thankful hearts are also healthier ones. The short, too-simple version is that thankless guys have higher levels of stress hormones, especially cortisol, which degrade blood vessels. That’s not good. Second, if you’re not enjoying your life as much as you thought you would be by now, it may well be because you’re not even seeing your life, that you’re looking right past it for some figment of a life you expected to have. But third and best of all, if you’re just greedy and couldn’t care less about being a better person being grateful for what you’ve got actually brings you more and more of all the good stuff you want. A grateful man is a magnet. Capitalists want to hire him. Women are attracted to him. He adds grace to every game. Being decent is actually quite shrewd.
Now, of course, we don’t want to be sappy, greeting-card grateful. Nobody wants that. We need a more muscular version of gratitude, an appreciation that lets us move out from under our ingrate training but still honors the indifference that makes us great. We’re after the full-throated finesse of the warrior-poet, a soft strength that allows us to both prevail and savor.
I’ve already started down the path. And I’m going to use this Thanksgiving, when I’m surrounded by most of my precious blessings, as the official kickoff of the hallelujah tour. If any of you out there have ever done anything for me over the years, don’t be surprised if you get a note of belated thanks. Here are a few guiding thoughts that have helped me get started and might come in handy if you’re interested in grabbing the gratitude advantage.
Most often when I hear advice in the genre of stop and smell the roses, I have an urge to piss on the rosebushes. Yes, of course we should notice all the small enchantments of the world and we should be grateful for what’s that phrase—oh yeah, the miracle of breath. I’d love to have that serenity, but… Hey, where’s my iPhone? Let’s face it, we’re bad at being in the moment, preferring to look ahead to what’s next or, even better, back in anger and regret. I’m not ever going to become a mindful Buddha, but of late I’ve actually taken one baby step toward tranquility. Every day for the past 2 weeks, I’ve taken 2 minutes to watch—or more accurately, feel—the sun rise. Yeah, I know, I know. I was skeptical, too. Just try it. I’ve liked it. Outside. On the deck. Before the starter’s pistol. A tip of the cap to the daily creation.
We see life as a struggle. It’s not. Sure, it’s got its competitive corners, but hey, easy does it. It’s tough to notice beautiful things if we’re constantly in battle mode. Remember the advice of ‘70s Pittsburgh Pirate slugger Willie Stargell, who captured the effort and flow baseball required in two oxymoronic words: try easier.
Cherish the cracks
These days, when a curious father of a lazy adolescent inquires about this D in chemistry, he often gets the slacker slogan “It’s all good.” It’s meant to teach uptight success-oriented dads that setbacks too are part of the human story and is, of course, enraging when so deployed. However, there actually is wisdom in this idiot wind. We don’t have much patience with bad news.
We prefer instead to plunge ahead. In some ways, this instinct is much to be admired—getting on with it is good. But we shouldn’t go forward without the lessons of the pain. Sadness makes thankfulness more keen. We learn gratitude by descending into the sorrow and the dread of infirmity and illness and loss, by drinking what’s bitter in the cup. Our humanity gets fully fledged by heartbreak; gratitude grows from wounds. When my father died, all of us—his wife, his children, his friends—noticed how diminished the world seemed without him, and that showed us the beauty of his time here. I think it was poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen who wrote that everything beautiful is cracked; that’s how the light gets in. Take pride in your scars.
See with new eyes
We get habituated to the women in our lives. Once they’ve been around a few years, we forget that they’re (a) greatly kind, (b) good and true, and (c) exquisitely beautiful. Look again. No luck? Look again.
Be gentle with yourself
Yes, I stole this treacle from Desiderata, the flower-child poster that proliferated in teenage bedrooms across the republic from 1968 to 1975. Here’s why. Then, it was a lame excuse not to do anything. But now, it’s something different. Now, it’s an endorsement of everything you’ve done.
We need to do better at taking pride in our achievements. Maybe it’s the stage of life I’m in, but I know lots of successful men, guys with real professional achievements, flourishing kids, yeasty marriages, nice houses, good friendships, who are more rueful about the successes they didn’t have than they are enthused about the great things they’ve done. A grateful man appreciates his journey. If you can’t value your own, it’s tough to value other people and enjoy this place as much as you might.
Welcome to lower blood pressure and more joy. Now, pass that pecan pie. Sure, why not? Slap some whipped cream on there, too. Gracias, amigo.
Ed note: This column originally ran in the November/December 2004 issue of Best Life.
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