Friday, November 25, 2016
Usually at this time of year I write about perspective. Black Friday yields plenty of good behavioral examples. It is common for people to throw perspective out the window, pay no attention to the distinction between wants and needs, line up or camp out in anticipation of the “door-buster” sales, and in some cases literally risk their lives and those of their neighbors in a human stampede to secure the best bargains.
This year I’d rather write about perspective from the standpoint of yesterday’s celebration, Thanksgiving, one day set aside for gratitude.
We live in such a comfortable and convenient world. Even those considered poor in America today have far more than many people living in the rest of the world. The vast majority has access to indoor plumbing, refrigeration, microwave ovens, color television, the Internet and much more. They can play games on their smartphones to pass time while waiting in line for free winter clothing for their children.
And the rest of us are much better off. As we sit in front of the wide screen HDTV watching football, we don’t need to get out of our seat to change the channel or to run our own instant replays using the DVR. The house is heated and the food plentiful. A major worry is how to recover from having eaten too much, not where the next meal is coming from or how we are going to pay the rent. This is a big step forward for many families over only a few generations, but we take most of this for granted.
Instead of appreciating all the conveniences and comfort, instead of being thankful for what we have, we complain about more and more trivial things. We have hot buttons. We experience outrage and offense at insignificant words and actions of others. No one is allowed to tell jokes unless they are the right kind of jokes – “A shopping mall Santa Claus in Florida is out of a job for telling a 10-year-old girl that Hillary Clinton was on his ‘naughty list.’” (The mother explained that the girl was a Clinton supporter. So we have a politically savvy 10-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus!)
Gratitude, on the other hand, draws us toward the present. It focuses our attention on what we have and how lucky we are to have it. When we don’t take the time for gratitude, regrets from the past and worries about the future overwhelm us. We make up scary scenarios about possible future disasters. What if this happens? We dwell on disappointments. This may be the result of having too many possessions, too much food and too much free time, but it’s probably more of a case of searching for things to upset us to publish our distress and get sympathy from likeminded friends on social media.
When I teach yoga, I emphasize the need for gratitude. It draws students to the present, to spending one hour on the mat away from the stresses and worries of a typical day. Being grateful for just one circumstance or one relationship can drive out fears and worries. Focus on the breath, and as you feel the cool inhale at the tip of the nose, know that even that single next breath was never guaranteed to you. But we all take it for granted and instead compound our misery with imagined slights, while we play the prophet by manufacturing a future of ruination.
Our ancestors saw everyday as gift, as they struggled against nature to stay alive. Our struggles are so minor that we have time and energy left over to stress over tomorrow’s possibilities and to be nasty to people who didn’t vote the same way we did in the last election (or the ones before that).