by Julia Steiny
Gratitude is a discipline. Like any other skill, it must be practiced regularly, like piano scales, always aiming for mastery.
Educators have developed a short list of 21st-century skills, which do not include the ability to give thanks. In my current mood, mournful since my dad died, I find myself eyeballing that list as woefully incomplete and begging a re-write. Currently 21st-century skills include teamwork, communication, critical thinking and such. Good goals, to be sure, but what about civility? Empathy? Kindness?
What about the ability to acknowledge the riches of life, however modest, and to say thanks out loud? Our culture has grown so cynical, so “whatevah,” it’s as if little under the sun is quite meeting our standards. We certainly want kids to be more gracious, more mindful of the work and resources invested in them. But I don’t see us modeling the behavior we want to see.
Last Saturday night 13 of us sat crammed at my mother’s dining room table. We’d been to the funeral that morning. But sitting cheek to jowl left no room to set an empty place in honor of the man called Homer, Dad or Pops, depending on the generation. Only 2 of the 8 grandchildren couldn’t make the cross-country trip. And the one missing spouse was minding a hospice situation of his own, also 3,000 miles away from that dinner table.
The night before, when the family first assembled, my mother had asked each of us to tell a story about Dad. Several of the cousins’ were quite funny. My father had an over-sized personality, which aged in ways that gave the kids memorable grist.
But a few in my generation balked at the sentimentality of being requested to provide a fond remembrance on demand. No one appreciates being told what to do. But long ago my family of origin took the position that conventional rituals, traditions and religions were just other people’s mindless adherence to a bunch of dumb rules, or painfully-earnest hippie behavior.
So imagine my poor mother. A psychotherapist still practicing and teaching at a ripe age, she’s a tough old bird, famous among her kids for rarely having troubles of her own. Still, the loss of her husband of 63 years sucked the wind from her sails. She’ll rally, to be sure. But for now her life and home teem with emotion. And unlike my sister’s new Italo-American husband, a 60-year-old man who bursts into tears at everything, we’re Stoics, with few conventions for sharing strong feelings.
But at the post-funeral dinner, my mother stopped asking for ritual cooperation and simply announced that she would give thanks. She went around the table, and one by one thanked each adult and each grandchild for a contribution they’d made to the last few days. As she started, I sensed that the cynics among us felt she was being corny. “Corny” is a serious put-down in that family. We’re hip, cutting edge, out there. What she was doing was too cute, too contrived.
But as she went from one to the next, a kinder hush fell. For some the thanks came easy, because the contribution had been enormous feats of management — help with meals and big logistics. She had to think a moment for some of the kids, because she was determined to say something concrete beyond thanks for coming, and was successful. By the end, as my tradition would say, grace descended. She’d put a gentle period at the end of an important sentence, on a momentous day.
And she said, “There, that felt really good.”
My son, who followed in her footsteps to become a psychotherapist, regularly reminds me that practicing gratitude is the best medicine for depression. He insists that giving thanks every day for some small list of pleasures and mercies is a critical life skill. I know he’d appreciate it if I practiced it more. He agrees that my struggle to improve conditions for kids is hard labor. But he’d like it if I stopped to smell the roses, to taste life’s deliciousness in the midst of the work, and to laugh and have fun even in adversity.
Zorba had exuberant praise for “the whole catastrophe” of life.
It’s precious, this life of ours. And finite.
I’m a traditionalist and arch-conservative — in the ecological sense of the word, not the Tea Party sense. (I resent how the TP twisted Christianity’s central principle into their Judge, Reject, and generally Hate-Thy-Neighbor creed.) As a conservative traditionalist, I hereby direct your attention to your calendar where Thanksgiving Day reminds you to muster some thanks at least once a year, out loud, to those who surely enrich your lives.
And maybe, like my mother, you’ll be able to say, “There, that felt really good.” And maybe if you and I both do that often enough, civility might creep back into public discussion — something for which we would all give thanks.
We just need the discipline to do so.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com and GoLocalWorcester.com. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.