Rich man crying ‘cause his money is time / Poor man smiling ‘cause he knows he ain’t blind
~ Sam Roberts, “Brother Down”
I can remember more than one night I spent wide awake as a child, frightened from a scary movie or some other show I wasn’t supposed to watch. As scared as I was, I knew from experience that the night would eventually be over, and I would be fine, but that wouldn’t dispel the fear. No matter what kind of reasoning I could summon, the fear wouldn’t budge, and I’d be trapped in that awful situation until the sun came up.
Waking my parents to tell them I was scared would do no good. They could only comfort me for a few moments, then turn out the light and leave me again, vulnerable to any and all zombies or giant reptiles that happened to invade my room.
Once they’d left I’d have no choice but to hide completely under the covers, the edges tucked under my body, so that if a wandering bedroom carnivore did happen to eat me, it would just bite cleanly through this neatly packaged child without my having to ever see it happening. I figured that ensuring a sudden and speedy demise was the best I could do in those hopeless situations.
This was not a frequent occurrence but it did happen from time to time, and each time I ached so badly for nighttime to be over. It always came so slowly. I yearned for the sun. It didn’t really matter what the next day would contain, as long as it was light out and there were other people around. I would take anything: unloading the dishwasher, helping my dad organize the garage, standing in line at the 7-11… anything but to be here, alone in the dark.
In fact, I even fantasized about being in school, under the safety of the fluorescent lights, amongst the orange plastic chairs, and most importantly, around other people. Cowering under my covers, I resolved never to complain about school again. It really wasn’t that bad compared to being imprisoned in the darkness, stalked by monsters. School was seldom something I looked forward to, but when compared to the prospect of being eaten in my bed by red-eyed hell-hounds, it seemed like heaven to me. It felt bizarre to want to be in school.
This reveals a deep truth: how we respond to the thought of something depends tremendously on our current emotional state. When my alarm clock would go off at 7:00 on a Monday morning, school was tedious and unfair, but viewed from the depths of one of those scary nights, school was inviting and comforting. On any school day that followed a night of vampire nightmares, it was always easier to smile, enjoy my friends and get enthusiastic about my schoolwork.
Of course, what school was actually like never really changed, yet my perception of it could vary so wildly, depending on my moment-to-moment needs and priorities. It was a place that might be boring sometimes, but when viewed objectively, there was nothing truly terrible about it. Sometimes, when I was particularly grounded and aware, I knew school was something to be grateful for. Yet most of the time, I just could not find this same gratitude and appreciation for it.
The Crucial Ingredient Necessary for Gratitude
Why was it necessary to survive a gauntlet of vampires and zombies before I could appreciate the secure and social atmosphere of a day at school? Why do so many people suddenly become happy and appreciative only after surviving an accident or a major health crisis? How can we get to a place where we can be grateful without having to experience something terrible in order to provide contrast? I never figured that out until long after school ended.
Today, I know what my sleepless nights gave me that allowed me to appreciate what I had: perspective. They reminded me that a sense of security is very valuable indeed, and that’s just one of the many things that a crowded classroom can provide for a person. But I would never even realize how much I value that sense of security until I found myself without it. As the song goes, you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.
Whether we’re grateful for something or not depends on whether we feel entitled to it. Anything we view as a right, has a tendency to not feel like a privilege, when in reality, all ‘rights’ are indeed privileges. We are lucky to have them, and they may not always be there. Be aware of the negative effect a sense of entitlement has over how lucky you feel. A sense of entitlement kills gratitude.
The illusion of entitlement makes us blind to the millions of terrible things that aren’t happening to us. We calibrate what is worthy and unworthy of thankfulness by what we are used to having. Much of what we are grateful for (and what we tend to take for granted) has to do with where we come from. Our culture defines for us what is to be expected, what we consider to be a luxury, and what we should feel entitled to.
In the developed world, even those of us in the lower income brackets have it pretty good. It’s like our ‘cake’ is guaranteed, but we allow ourselves to suffer so much just because the icing isn’t quite perfect. I’ve seen people flip out over slow fast-food service. I’ve seen fistfights over who gets to use the pool table next. We take things for granted as a rule, especially in North America. We’re trained to.
I suppose this is only natural in such an affluent society. You get used to certain things, and forget so quickly that they’re still providing you with something valuable. We’re like fish, unaware that water even exists because they spend their whole lives in it. We’re so completely immersed in luxuries and advantages that we lose track of what incredible gifts they really are. We’re often reminded to ‘count our blessings,’ but usually we don’t even recognize our blessings until they exceed our expectations or our sense of entitlement. And if we expect a lot (as we modern Westerners do) it can be very hard to feel grateful while we’re dealing with a problem or two.
When you find yourself feeling disappointed or slighted, it’s a good habit to ask yourself, “What am I feeling entitled to, in this situation?” Is this something that you feel should be guaranteed? Is this something everyone in the world has? Is it so hard to get along without it?
I’m reminded of a story Dave Matthews told between songs at one of his concerts. He was traveling in a poorer region of Africa, and he’d been jamming with some local musicians. They had been at it for six or seven hours, and Dave realized he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
So he said, “Do you guys want to go get something to eat? I’m starving.”
The room went dead silent.
The word he chose meant something very different in the country he was in. As sensitive and unassuming as Dave is, his Americanized sense of entitlement was revealed, to himself and everyone else.
The Joys of Imagining Terrible Things
I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.
~ Mark Twain
It’s common self-help doctrine not to waste your time or work up your emotions by thinking of things you don’t want to happen. Merely imagining a troubling scenario can provoke the same emotions and anxiety that would occur if you were actually experiencing them. The heart rate rises, the skin flushes, the muscles tense, all just by thinking.
This phenomenon is quite powerful: it can create crippling phobias, lifelong grudges, neglected responsibilities and unfollowed dreams. But there is a way of leveraging that phenomenon in a way that benefits us.
We’ve established that gratitude requires perspective, which is often a fleeting quality. Especially when we are in a bad mood, we know that our perspective is impaired. Big changes to our situation can put things in perspective in a hurry, but we don’t always want those big changes.
Luckily we can create perspective, by visualizing. It sounds ridiculous, but it pays great dividends to make a habit of imagining what it would be like to have problems you don’t actually have. If you can put yourself, mentally and emotionally, in a place where you’re even more burdened and challenged than you actually are, it can bring perspective to your current situation, and gratitude to the advantages you do have.
Naturally, it never occurred to me to deliberately get worked up over a problem I don’t actually have. But I recognized why (and how) to do that on one cold, miserable night.
Some days I find myself going to bed upset in some way. Either it’s something I’m dreading about the next day, or some problem I don’t know how to solve. Something that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m sure you’ve all been there.
That night, I was lying in bed, fretting about some now-forgotten problem, when my thoughts were interrupted by the howling wind blowing branches against the building. It was snowy, and deathly cold out, and I thought “Man am I glad I have walls.” For a second I imagined the wall were inexplicably missing, and the freezing air was whipping through my room and across my bed.
For some reason I felt compelled to really explore this miserable fantasy: my blanket would be torn from me, the snow would sting and freeze my skin. It would ruin my new bed, the dozens of books on my shelf, and my whole wardrobe. Then I’d have some real problems to deal with. What an important service this wall was providing for me! And it had been doing it the whole time I’d lived there, thanklessly.
In fact, as I looked around, I realized there were dozens of things in that very room that were improving my quality of life tremendously in that very moment, not the least of which was my soft, glorious bed. I thought about the people out there sleeping on floors, prison cots, straw mattresses, and in dumpsters. I felt embarrassed to realize that there were probably people out there in the cold that very night, looking for a safe place to sleep. And I was staying in a self-made private Hilton, griping about some little puzzle I was facing. To let a little challenge spoil my mood and the quality of my life, amidst all these wonderful things, was not just a shame, but an outright crime.
In that instant I realized that I was superbly well-equipped to deal with life, and always have been.
I was surrounded by luxuries and tools and advantages I could bring to bear on any problem I had. If even one of them were missing (say, my bed) it would make life significantly more difficult to deal with, yet I’d still have to, and it could always be worse than that still. I really am lucky as hell, all the time.
Any time I feel like I have some reason to feel sorry for myself, I look around me at all the tools and privileges I have in that particular moment, and I imagine what it would be like to be missing one of them right now. This same financial conundrum, but my wallet got stolen, too! This same looming deadline, but my toilet just backed up everywhere! This same long busride, but I have to pee super bad! This same awkward dinner with the boss’ family, but I didn’t get a chance to shower after my workout!
Make it a Habit
When things are bad, make them worse in your head. Get creative here. Develop as vivid a fantasy as you can. Think in terms of the senses. What does ‘extra-bad’ look like, sound like, feel like? Imagine exactly how it would feel to drop your cell phone in a public toilet. What would you do? How would it change your day, your week?
When your real problems are bigger, make the imagined ones bigger too, to keep them in perspective. If you’re currently being sued for defamation, imagine what kind of trouble you’d have to deal with if you hit and killed a pedestrian in your car today. This is reality for someone out there, how do you think they’re dealing?
Once you have an appreciation for a much-worse version of your current plate of problems, then you can indulge in the luxury of not having to actually deal with any of it. You can smile at the fact that your wallet is still safely in your pocket, you do have four intact bedroom walls, and you don’t have to swab sewage off your bathroom floor.
Make a habit of this, and really explore the details of what it would be like to have extra problems, or to be missing some of the advantages you’re used to. Learn to appreciate the weight and heartache of problems you don’t have, and never let yourself believe you’re unlucky. You will quickly realize that in most ‘bad situations’ you face, there are one or two things going wrong, and about eighty things going right.
Coming up with problems you don’t have is never a problem. Just read your newspaper.