Thursday, August 20, 2009

Grazie! תוֹדָה! Dziękuję! Merci!

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who view their lives through the lens of gratitude and those who view it through a lens of snark.

Thanks to my mom, I learned early on to "please" and "thank you" with the best of them. I have taught these magic words to my children, too, and I believe they are some of the most charming incantations in the human spellbook. But, though I bandy the words about freely, I find myself dwelling deeply in the land of snark

I'm not apologizing here (although I do that very well, too, and far too often). A little snark never hurt anyone. Snark is funny. It helps get me through my day. It takes a quick wit and a sharp tongue to pull off snark with aplomb, and I appreciate a talented practitioner. Many of my favorite writers — Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, professional snarkers all — have proven over and over again that the pen truly is mightier than the sword, and I wish I could thank them all personally.

So let me take just a moment to be a little snarky about gratitude. Ever since Oprah jumped on the gratitude bandwagon, it has become big business. If you search her Website, more than 200 results show up for gratitude. I'm not complaining. I'm grateful for Oprah. Her show has made me laugh and cry and think, no small feat for the small screen. But all this gratitude talk also makes me cringe just a little.

Some years ago, I was given a copy of the bestselling book Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach. It was a lovely gesture, the perfect gift for an aspiring writer, for which I was very grateful. I've not read it. It stares at me reproachfully from the top shelf of my bedroom bookcase, it's sticky sweet pink cover making me feel like a middle-aged goth wannabe. Just thinking about it gives me a sudden urge to get a tattoo. I'm grateful for my profound aversion to pain, or I would be a painted lady by now.

The trouble with these prescriptions for injecting gratitude into our lives is that they tend to be full of cloying, treacly little algorithms for better living: Eat Pray Love; discover The Secret; Focus on the Good Stuff. It's hard to convey real gratitude without sounding mawkish (but when I discover the secret of how to do it and write my book about it, I will be eternally grateful to Oprah if she will interview me about it on her show).

"I feel a very unusual sensation — 
if it is not indigestion, I think it must be gratitude."
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

But this morning (or yesterday morning or whenever it was that I last awoke from sleeping, as I see it is now after 3:00 a.m.) I heard a litany of "I hates" reverberating in my brain and the oddest thought popped into my mind: What if I changed every "I hate" statement I hear in my head to an "I love" statement. I know, I gagged, too, but that hazy, waking, early morning brain is hard to control and, unbidden, it started to make the conversions. Don't panic, there was no epiphany. But it did make me smile to myself in a genuine, unsnarky way — especially when I heard "I love school-related paperwork" whispered in my inner ear — and it got me thinking, which always a dangerous thing.

I am grateful — you know, sometimes. (Watch out, here comes the cotton candy.) When I look at my children, I am (usually) awash in a gratitude so profound that it defies verbal expression, so I smother them in kisses and make them promise never to grow up. I'm grateful to live in this country (where, despite all its faults, it is still the best place to be) and in this century (when, despite all its faults, it is still the best place to be). I'm grateful for our myriad comforts and gifts (even though I would be plenty grateful to wake up debt free with a brand new kitchen). 

I know I'm not grateful often enough. I don't need to read all those best sellers to understand that true gratitude, like exercise, takes practice and commitment before you can reap the benefits. I feel guilty enough without them harping at me.

My friend and fellow Chicago Moms Blogger, Kim Moldofsky, inspired this blog post (although, once she reads it, she may feel somewhat less than grateful). Kim has taken the 21-Day TinyPrints Gratitude Challenge and is writing about her feelings of gratitude for three straight weeks. I admire her commitment and effort at making gratitude a habit — as well as the speed, grace and frequency with which she posts.

I do have one funny little gratitude ritual. I keep a tzedakah box for collecting coins to give to charity in the cupboard above my washing machine. Whenever I find a penny or a dime or a quarter in the laundry, instead of pocketing it, I put it in the box and offer this little blessing: I'm grateful for the health and well being of my family. I try to say it without a trace of snark.

I'm always grateful for your comments — be they snarky or full of appreciation — just click here to share.

I'd like to express my gratitude for the fabulous photo that graces this post — Cafe Gratitude, San Francisco Mission District. My thanks to Shayan Sanyal who shared it through a Creative Commons license. 


Kim Moldofsky said...

I love this. And as enthused as I am about the gratitude challenge, one of the related posts I've been turning over in my mind is similar to this one. Just as a house that is sparkling clean all the time (even when you pop in for a surprise visit) doesn't feel real or lived in to me, so do people who are just gushing, spilling over with positivity. That said there is a balance-- a way to be real, grounded, but also look on the bright side more often than I have been. And I'm trying to keep the house cleaner, too. ;-)

Barbara said...

What a fun post to read! I always kept the money I found in my kids' pockets when I was doing laundry. Heck, they were the only tips I got as chef, waitress, laundry woman! But your charity idea is better. One reason gratitude is important to me is that it is part of giving back, the big web of reciprocity in which we all dance. Give and take and give again.

montyandrosie said...

Heh - great post. It made me smile.

Of course... er... I'm grateful for the smile...

Susan Alison

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I am obsessively consciously grateful. Gratitude comes, I think, from a keen sense of awareness that things could be worse. Also helps in finding, what I like to call, the blessings in the bull$hit.

Jessica R. said...

The Gratitude Challenge is affecting all of us. I sat yesterday in the airport, sweating like mad because they had just made us run from one end of a terminal to the end of another, being told that we couldn't board because of a storm, knowing we were going to miss our connection, and knowing that I'd be stuck in Phoenix with two very tired and cranky children and no plans for the night... and all I kept thinking was "well, I am grateful we got to go on vacation." Gah. The gratitude will kill all the snark!

That said, great post! ;-)

Unknown said...

Sad but so true. Big business enters the picture and does it's number on whatever the topic. A gazillion copies later, it's overexposed bringing out the eye-rolling snark in a lot of us. It's too bad if gratitude has gotten a bad rap because of it. We're told we should practice It a certain way, when it's really about marching to our own gratitude drummer.