There is a vast chasm of difference between the two. I am not sure why I’m up this late writing about this, but I feel this overwhelming sense of gratitude right now and so I think I just wanted to capture that.
And to tell a story… about gratitude…
Psychology Today defines gratitude as “an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has…”
I say they have no clue what it really is.
Google says gratitude is “the quality of being thankful…” which is a little closer to the truth.
Now, let me tell my story and you’ll understand the difference.
I’ve been a long time member of a certain twelve step program. I’m intentionally being aloof because I don’t want anyone to think I represent any existing twelve step program. I would not even divulge this much information if it weren’t absolutely important to the story. Truth is, I haven’t been to a meeting in a long time, but that’s not required for membership, so it doesn’t matter (maybe it does to some, but not to everyone… not to me).
One day, well over a decade ago, I was in a meeting. I was chairing the meeting (or if your not familiar with twelve step vernacular, I was leading the meeting). At the time, because I was so “enlightened” and on top of my world, I had a personal rule when I chaired that if no one had a specific thing they needed/wanted to talk about, the topic of discussion would always be gratitude. It seemed reasonable, because gratitude is what kept us all not only sober, but happy. It gave us real perspective of our whiny, selfish, self-centered little worlds.
On this particular day, no one wanted to chair. So, I stepped up. When it came time to come up with a topic, no one wanted to speak up. So, I stepped up. Gratitude! God Dammit!
Of course, you can’t talk about such a happy thing without hearing really good, inspirational stuff. This is almost always true. Of course there were the people who would being with, “I just don’t feel very grateful, and I know it’s wrong… that I have a lot to be grateful for, but I’m just so worried about [which new car I should choose/paying bills/DTs/the incessant need smoke meth/etc.].” But they would always come around and find things to be grateful for and thank me for the topic.
But Steve was in the meeting that day. Steve was a man some of us called “Eeyore” behind his back. We didn’t mean it mockingly. We meant it because we worried about him. Steve was always so sad. So very sad. Sadness permeated him, etched through him, leaving him visibly full of holes like a natural sponge. Whenever Steve was going to speak — and he always spoke — my heart would ache for him. I never felt pity for him, but I always wanted him to know that I cared about him, about his life. I wanted to see him hold happiness. He was so soft, and gentle and free with compliments and well-wishes for absolutely every soul he encountered. It was so difficult to see him not have that same compassion and empathy for himself.
We loved him like we loved Eeyore.
When it came time for Steve to talk, I could tell he was dreading opening his mouth. I half expected him to pass, but Steve rarely passed. And though I don’t remember word for word what he said, and it may be piecemeal from several meetings the gist I present below is accurate enough to be quoted dialogue from that meeting.
“I miss my wife. I loved her more than anything. But one day, I woke up from a black out next to her under the bridge we lived under in Portland. She was dead. I don’t know how long we had been laying there or when she died, but she was dead. I hate alcohol. And I’m really scared of it too. I don’t ever want to drink again, but the guilt I feel is too much to live with and alcohol is the only escape I know.
“So, I don’t feel grateful. Maybe sometimes. I feel grateful for my lemon tree. I take good care of it and it gives me lemons. Sometimes I feel grateful for that. But what’s more important than feeling grateful is that I AM grateful. There’s a difference.”
I don’t feel grateful, but I AM grateful.
The concept struck me right between the eyes with lead brick. I could have had no better teacher in all the Universes in this particular subject. Here I thought I was so wise and emotionally enlightened and I had not yet learned this simple idea.
I think it was in his book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, that Dan Millman said that “emotions are the weather patterns of the body.” We often take this idea for granted. I say “we” because you know you do this too. We say something like “I am grateful for my life today,” when what we really mean is that we feel gratitude for these things. Which is fine, but emotions are fleeting. They blow through and are gone.
How audacious of us to relegate something so important to something so fleeting!
What we really want from gratitude is for it to last. No be fleeting. As an emotion I feel, I can easily take it for granted. I am acquainted with it, rather than intimate with it. And maybe a part of me wants to argue that this is just semantic nonsense, but it’s not.
Think about the power in the words we use. When I say, “I am grateful for the life I have,” I turn gratitude into a adjective. An adjective that is describing me. Thus, gratitude becomes a part of my identity. It is no longer something that I simply feel, but something I must be. Which implies that I have work to do. Something a bit more than sitting around waiting for happy things to plop down into my lap.
On my worst days, when depression sharpens its teeth to gnaw at my grey matter, I remember Steve. He won’t let me forget him. And let me tell you, from the depths of my existence, as a responsible expression of the Universe in an infinite reality, I am truly grateful for Steve.
Steve did not survive this world. He desperately wanted to be with his wife again. So he went home to her one day. He made absolute sure to leave instructions behind on who would inherit his lemon tree. And though I don’t know for sure, I believe with all my heart that it is still alive today, being tended to by someone Steve taught how to be grateful.
Thank you, Steve, for putting me in my place and not teaching me only about gratitude, but about humility. Another thing one must be more than one must feel.