Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Thankfulness Experiment

It's that time of year again, when we are asked to comment around the table, or on Facebook, or in school, about all the things we're thankful for. Little kids will list toys, pets, favorite foods. Adults will offer the usual - good health, family and friends, a safe place to live. And then, of course, everyone bemoans the fact that we aren't this mindfully grateful the rest of the year.

Well, I'm here to tell you, thankfulness (at least the way it's seasonally marketed) ain't all it's cracked up to be. And I think that's because we're going about it all wrong.

Before you decide I'm a spoiled, ungrateful brat and quit reading, let me tell you that I've spent the past year working on constant, mindful thankfulness. Yeah, I do stuff like that. I began The Thankfulness Experiment last year at Thanksgiving and it's coming to a close now. The experience was not at all what I expected.

First of all, I have to admit that my life is pretty good. I have a happy marriage, a lovely daughter, good health, great friends. I figured it would be easy to spend a year focusing on all the things I'm thankful for, thereby increasing all the positive energy in my life and improving my overall level of joy. Sounds like it would work, right? Well, the human psyche is a strange thing.

The more I actively, consciously worked to focus on things I'm honestly grateful for - everything from the smell of a spring breeze to a collection of wonderful friends to a hug from my daughter - the more I also noticed all the things I don't like about my life, things that are annoying, stressful, even downright dangerous. It's like, once I started paying closer attention to a few things, I could no longer choose what I paid attention to. Everything stood out in greater relief, both good and bad.

I began assessing this year-long experiment in the a few weeks ago, as Halloween passed and we began to prepare for another Thanksgiving. The more I thought about my experiences, the more I was reminded of the Kahlil Gibran quote: "The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

I really think that's what I experienced, sort of the opposite of the 'flattening effect' that anti-depressants have on the emotions. I chose to focus on just one aspect of my life but in the process the whole world became much more alive, more three-dimensional, more real. Including the ugly bits.

And you know what? As I reflected on the experience, without intending to, I found myself honestly being thankful even for the unpleasant stuff. No, I don't enjoy the darknesses in life. But somehow, in paying attention to them, I've discovered a kind of appreciation for them. Sure, I always understood (at least cerebrally) the idea that the brightest light casts the darkest shadow. But now, on a gut level, I really get it.

After reflection I also realized that, for me at least, the best way to do what I originally intended to do - be truly thankful on a regular basis outside the holiday season - is to just relax. The harder I work at being thankful, the more difficult it gets. So I've quit working at it, and the change is astounding.

I think most of us are naturally appreciative of the world around us and the many wonders it contains. Children certainly are; the good stuff stands out in their minds, in their hearts. If we just quit worrying so much about 'doing it right' - being appropriately, socially-acceptably thankful for the appropriate, socially-acceptable things - the world flows gently around us and we naturally respond to all the good things, the things we instinctively feel gratitude for. The good stuff.

So I've ended my experiment. I'm no longer working at being thankful, just allowing myself to be. And you know what? The bad stuff recedes into the background while the good stuff floats up into view. Even when I was standing in line this morning at the DMV to renew my driver's license. Now, if that's not true positive power, I don't know what is.

So this Thanksgiving I'm thankful for the opportunity to allow myself simply to be, and not require myself to be thankful for any particular tangible or intangible thing that people might expect me to express gratitude for.

Breathe in. Breathe out. So it is, and so we let it be.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The State of the System

Yesterday was election day. I voted by absentee ballot a week early so, with that out of the way, I got to spend election day and the few days leading up to it listening to other people comment about the State of the System - their worries about how bad things are and how bad they might get, depending on who is elected and which referenda pass.

Well, the election is over and we have a bunch of new folks in office and, as usual, everyone is complaining. Some people are even suggesting that the form of government we have is the problem; it encourages behind-the-scenes shenanigans, abuse of power, you name it.

I’ve thought about this subject for a long time, in fact, since I first registered to vote at age 18. I’ve studied the various forms of government people have had, around the world and over the millennia. And I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: The problem is not with the systems, but with the people.

Here’s the thing: Pretty much any system of government will work well if all the people are ‘good guys’ - fair-minded, responsible, unselfish, not greedy or power-hungry. In fact, if everyone is a Good Guy, you probably don’t even need a system of government. The problem is, the human population has always had a sizeable proportion of Bad Guys. And they’re really good at finding ways to subvert the system, any system, for their personal gain, regardless of the consequences to everyone else.

This reminds me of a conversation I had years ago with the man who lived across the street from us. He spent about twenty years as the town chief of police, then did a couple terms as county sheriff before retiring. He asked me why we had laws. I suggested that the purpose of laws was to make people behave. He laughed. Then he pointed out something that staggered me, and that still rocks me when I really think about it.

The Good Guys don’t need laws; they’ll generally do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. The Bad Guys ignore the laws and do whatever they want, regardless. About the only thing laws really do, in the grand scheme of things, is define which line the Bad Guys are crossing in a particular situation. Whoa.

Believe it or not, I’m not a cynic. I do think human nature has a powerfully positive side to it. It’s just that, throughout history (and probably through prehistory as well) the nasty bits of human nature have tended to float to the top, like so much greasy scum in a city puddle, and take over, simply because the nice bits of human nature tend to let them. Because they’re nice. Catch-22.

What’s the solution? Beats me. Maybe invent a better human being? I’ll check with God and get back to you about that. In the meantime, I’ll continue to surround myself with people who radiate those positive traits I mentioned earlier. I can’t change the world but I can sure as heck build a buffer between me and it.