Sunday, June 19, 2016
IN SEARCH OF GRATITUDE
“The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.” Brené Brown, Rising Strong After spending more than a year on the market, our house sold. Our realtor seemed happy, if a little apologetic. Beside him I sat, scribbling initials here and there, scratching my full name on the line as he pointed. Then I waited for the surge of gratitude that would, if my readings of www.gratefulness.org were accurate, enhance my physical/mental health, contribute to financial stability, improve my personal relationships and contribute to the well-being of work/community environments. I waited for the unbridled shout of joy, the quiet contentment of satisfaction, the slight tug of a smile against my cheeks. Then I waited some more. Gratitude, it seemed, had gone missing. To my surprise, I didn’t call anyone to announce the good news about the sale, didn’t tell my friends, thought it better not to disappoint them. They had been summoning my gratitude—my relief at a minimum--ever since the negotiations began. “You must be so relieved,” they said. “You must be really happy to have the possibility of getting it done with.” If I can’t be grateful, then I must be relieved, I thought. I must be it. I have to be relieved for my friends, for my kids, for all the people who want to hear that I am relieved. They are counting on me to be relieved. But I was not relieved. I was anything but relieved. Instead of being relieved, I was angry—angry that it had taken more than a year to sell, angry that it had sold for so much less than we had ever imagined, angry that the buyer was demanding that we do routine maintenance before handing it over, angry that I hadn’t insisted on lowering the price long ago, angry that there had been a break-in during the negotiations, angry at myself for feeling sad every time I visited the house I loved, so sad that I only went there when forced to do so. So it wasn’t enough just to be angry. I had to be sad as well. I was sad to be losing the house that had made us so happy, sad that David’s illness had made the sale of the house the only reasonable option. I was sad to lose the house with the incredible veranda and the yard full of birds, the house where you could lie awake at dawn and count the birds you could hear through the open windows—five birds, ten birds maybe. I was sad to lose the rhubarb I hadn’t wanted to plant, the onions I couldn’t get rid of, the raspberry bushes that tore the skin off my arms, the lupines, the peonies, the lilac bush, the Solomon’s Seal started from a cutting stolen by friends from the front of Athabasca Hall for my fortieth birthday, the goat’s beard Mark once gave me for Mother’s Day. Adding it all up, I had to admit that I was far too sad to be grateful. On top of all this, I was resentful, resentful that it wasn’t enough just to be angry and sad. I had to be worried on top of it all, worried that the accumulation of all that had happened to me had somehow transformed me irreversibly into a sad and angry person who couldn’t be grateful for blessings, who couldn’t tell stories that ended happily without including long middle descriptions of the suffering. I worried that I might have lost the capacity to be satisfied with my life. Now I know that the best way to enhance gratitude is to list things for which you are grateful. I also know, from trying this myself, and from hearing hundreds of stories from clients who tried it, that listing things for which you are grateful is a practice that works best when you are already feeling grateful. When you are mostly sad and angry, a list of gratitudes quickly transforms itself into a list of yes-buts. Yes, I am grateful that we live in such a beautiful apartment, but I am angry that we had to move out of the house. Yes I am grateful that I was able to go to the house and collect two fragrant bouquets of peonies for the apartment, but I am sad that I will probably never grow my own peonies again. Yes I am grateful to have the best husband anybody ever had, loving children, delightful grandchildren, devoted friends, financial security, sunny days, the on-line grocery shopping service, and the electric wheelchair that has made it possible for David and me to cruise the streets of our new neighbourhood, but I’m angry and sad about the house. Take it from me. Satisfaction with your life is a hard thing to come by once you get into the intoxicating rhythm of making a grateful yes-but list One of my great disappointments in the positive psychology trend with all its potential for self-help is that it makes you believe it is possible to make yourself feel what you want to feel instead of what you feel but don‘t want to feel. If you can make yourself feel things, I haven’t yet learned how to do it. The best I can offer is that you can lead your unwanted feelings to the door, but you can’t shoo them out. They’ll leave when they are good and ready to do so. If you are lucky, the process of herding them toward the door will leave some empty space to fill with other feelings. Maybe you can do a little bargaining, practice the art of compromise. It took a while to come to it, but I’ve offered Sadness a deal. I’ll stop pressuring her to leave if she’ll stop pushing back. I’ve hinted that she might even be allowed to stay permanently. As for Anger, well, she’s already on her way out. I suspect she got a little jealous when I buddied up with Sadness and decided to search for an easier target. And as for life satisfaction, a visit to www.viacharacter.org has reminded me that satisfaction is strongly associated with five character strengths—hope, zest, gratitude, love and curiosity. With Anger consuming a little less of my time, I found a moment to take an inventory. Firmly in place I have love and curiosity. Hope, as you might expect, refuses to be left out entirely. Zest is making occasional appearances, and gratitude has promised to keep working against the yes-buts. As the peonies prepare to drop their petals, maybe tomorrow, but certainly the day after, I notice that I’ve even made a few calls to announce that the house has sold, and though I had to pinch myself to believe it, I am quite sure I heard myself say, “It’s a bit of a relief to have it sold.” Could it be that, one day soon, “It’s a bit of a relief” might actually be replaced by “I’m grateful”?