One of the things I struggle with sometimes, and what my New Year’s Resolutions always try to address, is showing gratitude. I’m not the best at showing gratitude and when I do it seems contrived and fabricated as often as not. It doesn’t come naturally, and I don’t always know where to draw the line with expectations of other people. When is gratitude appropriate and when is it gratuitous? Huh… Isn’t it odd that gratitude and gratuitous come from the same Latin root word: Gratus – meaning “grateful“ or “pleasing”? Gratuitous morphed into something like “free” or “without expectation of benefit” and then, after a while, to “unwarranted”. Gratuity – as in a tip to a waitress – tends to retain some of the original meaning.
Um…But let’s get back to the topic of gratitude. (You see how my mind wanders, right.) I don’t consider myself to be an “ingrate” because if that was the case I probably wouldn’t even recognize my dilemma. I have seen and reacted to other people treating waiters, attendants or employees very badly when some expression of gratitude was called for. I’m a pretty big tipper in restaurants and bars because I’ve seen some deplorable patron behavior in this regard. That doesn’t seem to be the issue. I’m more uncomfortable with showing gratitude in closer or more personal relationships.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a brief class/lecture on “Exploring Gratitude” offered by a local Rabbi. This was unfamiliar territory for me as I’ve never been around a Rabbi except unknowingly maybe on a bus or simply in a casual encounter. This was a Rabbi doing Rabbi stuff and it was a woman Rabbi on top of that. My little traditional Lutheran head was prepared to spin but I came away with some very thoughtful and helpful ideas. There were about forty people in the room and the session was a somewhat interactive experience.
There’s internal gratitude and external gratitude and we most often think about external expressions of gratitude. That’s what comes to mind when out in the public world. Saying thank-you when someone opens or holds the door or tipping might be common and casual expressions. But what about internal expressions of gratitude. Part of the discussion focused on some Old Testament phrases from the Book of Isaiah or other passages that brought home the concept of being grateful internally and to oneself. In most cases it isn’t exactly a gift from God to have a roof over your head, clothing, ample food, the most recent iPhone, and a Lexus…those are details. Instead, we are given certain gifts and talents and endowed with the means to put them to good use. An intellect and a recognition of right and wrong and how to interact with others. Maybe God has a hand in that broad stuff or maybe it’s good genes and good parenting — you can be the judge. We can be grateful for waking up in the morning and for the gifts and talents that we have found within ourselves or have been revealed by others. The Rabbi’s talk partially focused on chanting as a personal practice of gratitude and before long she had forty people chanting in Hebrew with only a slight understanding of what was being said. This was a practice of mindfulness and most of the reactions were positive. Some of the discussion that followed compared the chanting to meditation or Tai Chi which I and a dozen or so others in the class were familiar with. When I practiced meditation (I was an early practitioner of TM) and Tai Chi I experienced a certain healthy, clear headedness that brought some lasting clarity to my daily routine. I was more responsive and open with other people. Over the years I have gotten away from regular practice and this session and discussion served to remind me of some of the self-gifted expressions of internal well-being – self gratitude. Okay – this might be part of the path that I’m seeking at least on the internal part.
So, let’s say (or pretend) my internal issue is solved. What about external expressions of gratitude to family and friends? This would usually be a face to face encounter requiring an expression of gratitude. My usual approach is to assume that this is implied by my behavior or actions but there’s no guarantee that the other person sees it that way. We go through life thinking we have all our bases covered but maybe we are not perceived in the way we think. When I was working as a program manager before I retired my employer would occasionally require us all to go to various inspirational sessions or participate in team building exercises. Sometimes these would require an assessment by subordinates of the manager’s style or relationship with employees. I was usually disappointed and realized I was not always perceived as I thought I was…as I tried to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the most common outcome of those exercises – that managers perceived themselves differently from the employees’ perceptions — but it was still bothersome. We can be oblivious to our relationships with others. I don’t recall ever asking my wife, now deceased, if she was truly happy in any direct way over the thirty-plus years of our marriage. We relied on the other’s verbal or nonverbal clues and we had an exceptionally strong friendship and loving relationship. To me, at least, it was an obvious deduction based on behavior and verbal expression. I see my daughter at least once a week and we are very comfortable together and typically don’t have discussions or expressions of gratitude. We do things for each other unasked and those actions typically pass without any expression of gratitude. That’s how we roll…so to speak. My point, and the nagging little stone in my shoe, is that we should probably be more explicit in our relationships and our gratitude.
I have a friend, a retired school psychologist, who lives 1,000 miles away and we often spent time together before I moved to New Mexico. Now we speak by telephone a few times a year and keep track, but months pass between our conversations. I recently heard from her when she was in a minor crisis. It was minor to me but major to her. She inherited rental property in St. Louis and the furnace stopped working. In the dead of winter, she had tenants in a house with no heat and no idea of how to fix it. She was panicking because she lives 200 miles away and can’t be on hand to deal with the problem. I have several good friends in St. Louis, where I grew up, and made a few contacts and got recommendations for repair companies. I passed that information on to my friend and she reported back that the problem was solved and thanked me for the recommendations. This took probably no more than an hour or two on my part. I didn’t think much of it and was glad I could help. A few days later I received a greeting card in the mail with a gift card for Starbucks and a thank-you note. What a nice gesture of gratitude. It was, maybe, a little over the top considering my investment of time and effort but I helped solve a problem that was very stressful to her. Her expression of gratitude had more to do with her relief in resolving the crisis and her hope and expectation that I could be of help. She is relatively new at this landlord situation and she wanted to be responsive to the tenants’ problems so that was also part of it.
So that is where I am with this. I’m not sure I’m closer to my goal of showing gratitude but maybe I can work on it with a fresher perspective. Maybe I analyze too much but that little stone in my shoe tells me I need to be more aware of opportunities to show gratitude where it is due. At any rate, maybe I’ll take up Tai Chi again. First, I think I’ll go to Starbucks.
* * *