A few weeks ago, a neighbor I had not yet met knocked on my door to tell me that her storage locker in the basement had been broken into, and so had mine.
I went down there. The locker door was hanging open, and my bike was gone. They hadn’t cut the lock, but had instead crowbarred the hardware entirely off the plywood door, which building management had attached with four of the tiniest screws I’d ever seen.
My initial feeling was the rush of violation and dirtiness that everyone feels when they see the mess left by a thief. They touched my stuff, and now some of it is at their place.
But I ran out of indignation pretty quickly. The normal victim feelings gave way to a feeling of, “Wow, I’m really glad I’m me.”
I can afford a new bike. I’ve never felt a desire to steal from people. Aren’t I lucky that I don’t know what it’s like to enter a building illegally, and rifle through someone else’s belongings, hoping to find something I can sell for fifty bucks? I would rather lose all my possessions than be that guy. I’m also glad to know that the locker was so insecure before I put anything irreplaceable in there.
I wasn’t thinking of it at the time, but I had recently listened to a short talk about cultivating gratitude at unusual moments. Nikki Mirghafori, a computer scientist and Buddhist teacher, asked the attendees at a meditation group to experiment with being grateful for everything that happens to them, then reporting their experience.
The idea sounds ridiculous, and even hopeless, but in practice it’s quite easy, and immediately rewarding. You just ask yourself, “Can I be grateful for this too?” In my short experience doing this, the brain has a way of coming up with good reasons why yes, you can.
This practice reveals a lot about our short-sightedness. We have a rather ridiculous tendency to believe everything is either strictly good for us or bad for us, and that we can reliably determine which one it is, in the instant that thing happens.
Nikki makes an important clarification at the outset: you’re not telling yourself you should feel grateful, only to invite or explore gratitude for what happens regardless of our initial feeling about it.
I live in the city and make use of street parking every day. Most of the time I can’t find a spot on the stretch near my building, and I have to go past the building around to the long side of the block. When that happens I usually end up hundreds of yards away from the door, with groceries to unload. Predictably I curse my bad luck, and often the people who had parked there inconsiderately, or at all.
Just after I’d listened to Nikki’s talk, this happened to me again. I was on the cusp of re-enacting my normal sequence of overreaction—disappointment, maybe rage, then grumpy trudging—when I remembered the practice. Could I be grateful that I couldn’t find a spot close to the building—that what’s happening is in many ways a good thing?
The thought immediately put me into a totally different position, one where I didn’t assume I should feel any particular way about it.
Mostly I just enjoyed the walk, noticed a few of my neighbor’s yard decorations, and felt glad that carrying grocery bags two blocks isn’t particularly difficult for me. I’m lucky to be able to walk almost any distance without chronic pain or fatigue. It struck me that my neighborhood is so close to downtown yet is really peaceful and safe. I can walk through it at 4am with nothing to worry about.
These are privileges that serve me every day, although I seldom actually enjoy them, because I’m so rarely aware of them.
The sky is falling? How do you know?
I arrived at my door feeling rather thrilled with my position in life, for exactly the way things were unfolding right now. And of course, I can never know the ultimate results of parking where I wanted: my car might have been sideswiped in that spot because it’s more exposed, or maybe it will get broken into in the far–away spot. Or maybe, through some convoluted butterfly effect, either outcome could have led to my meeting an amazing new friend, or starting a nuclear war. I don’t know and can’t know.
And that’s the point. Every event has infinite repercussions, and each chain of cause-and-effect will reverberate until the end of time, and bring the whole gamut of welcome and unwelcome developments to our lives.
So every event is in a very real sense both good and bad, including illness, breakup, hardship of almost any kind. Almost all of us can see how our failed relationships, for example, made us better in some way, even if they seemed like the end of the world at the time.
The worst years of my life, in my early twenties, directly resulted in the founding of this blog, which has made my life better than I ever thought it could be. It seems very lucky that life went so wrong then.
Radical gratitude is simply a way of challenging our initial feeling that a new development is wholly bad and that our moping and anger is justified, exploring instead what might also good about it. Primarily, it does two things:
It forces us out of hypersensitive kind of autopilot we often operate under, which is based on a pretty grievous misconception: that events are isolated and are of two distinct types—good or bad—and that this goodness or badness is determined by how welcome it feels when it happens.
It also puts you into a helpful problem-solving state that always ends in gratitude for something about what has just happened—the doors it opens, the things it teaches you, the future trouble it might spare you.
Experimenting with this is also kind of fun. The more absurd it seems to be grateful, given the situation, the more interesting and fun it can be. Can I be grateful that my plans were canceled? Certainly. Can I be grateful I have a rash on my foot? Uh, let’s find out.
Any moment of annoyance or disappointment is fair game. How can you be grateful for your partner being impatient with you while you’re trying to decide your order at a restaurant? Well, you might discover that it gives you a chance to understand their hangups and fears, and perhaps your own self-defeating habits, a little better.
Can you be grateful that you’re out of coffee? That your internet is out? That your latest draft sucks? If you have a brain and a bit of curiosity, yes you can.
Radical gratitude also often reveals when we’re just being stupid. If you’ve ever been annoyed that you said you’d make an appearance at a friend’s get-together, you’re taking quite a bit for granted there. Damn, it sucks having friends, always asking me to spend time with them.
Again, being grateful for everything is not an obligation, it’s an option to experiment with. You aren’t responsible for feeling any particular way after something happens.
But that initial feeling, the horror of a locker door hanging open, doesn’t have to be the final word on what’s good and what’s not. It’s a question too complicated for our most reactive emotions to answer.