Gratitude: Expecting Nothing, Surprised by Everything

By: David Cappella, Contributor

It has become something of a platitude to recognize that gratitude is felt most keenly only when there is very little to be grateful of. A starving beggar is grateful even for a crust, an impoverished family is grateful for a steady source of income, and a fatigued worker thinks fondly of rest.

Of course, we all recognize the very human contradictions at work: the well-fed should be grateful for their food, the affluent for their monetary security, and the well-rested for their wakeful acuity. And yet they, or more accurately we, often do not recognize the extent to which we ought to be grateful.

While these gratitude-neglecting contradictions may be harmlessly added to the long list of human frailties, it should be recognized that this particular vice has real consequences on our sense of well-being.

Gratefulness may in fact lead to happiness—through a recognition of the opportunity to act in a given moment. These acts often involve enjoyment because we see that all that we were allowing to distract us from the moment (e.g., stress and worry), actually had no bearing on what the present calls us to be and do. It may also contribute to a greater sense of respect and connectivity to others, as we become grateful for their roles in our lives.

Although it is easy to identify why we should be grateful, and to convince ourselves that this is something we should pursue (or at least duly observe come late November), it is more difficult to make gratitude a daily habit, whatever our circumstances. How do we do it? I believe it starts with perceiving the world from a more statistically humble point of view—what John Maynard Keynes would call fundamental uncertainty, or what theologians call faith. The prolific British writer G. K. Chesterton gives us a glimpse of this idea:

“The truth is, that all genuine appreciation rests on a certain mystery of humility and almost of darkness. … The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we realize that things might not be we cannot realize that things are.”

This seems to bring us back to where we started, as it is only unfortunate circumstances that make us so humble as to realize that things might not be. But there is another path that Chesterton is hinting at: imagination. C. S. Lewis once quipped that the “task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” But this is as much true for adults as it is for students. If we cannot foster a sense of imagination—of seeing opportunities, potentialities, the unknown—in the everyday moments of our lives, we will not be grateful.

And if from imagination springs gratitude (and from there well- being), perhaps we ought to work to strengthen our powers of imagination.

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