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Start: Why don’t we, as a society, really “get” gratitude?

I think the bottom line there is that, as a society, we don’t teach it.

(Okay. I’m done. You can stop reading now.)

(Actually, I did have a larger idea I wanted to develop for you, so if you can hang with me a little longer, I promise I’ll deliver.)

The video here is of motivational speaker, writer — and quadriplegic — Jason Hall. (Mr. Hall does have use — very limited use — of his arms.) In this video, he speaks about how he came to understand what gratitude really is.

Give it a watch (it’s an even ten minutes) and we’ll talk further.

• • •

Now, you really didn’t watch it, did you?

Go on. Here’s a cookie. Now go watch it.

• • •

Okay, fine. For those of you who wouldn’t watch it, let me give you the “take away” that I wanted to bring to your attention. Mr. Hall’s tremendous appreciation of the necessity of gratitude came in the aftermath of what Dr. Morris Massey of the University of Colorado calls an S.E.E. — a Significant Emotional Experience. These are personal events that change how someone perceives his or her life.

Would Mr. Hall have understood gratitude so deeply had he never experienced this?

No one can know this, of course, but this raises a question: do most people in our culture not understand the value of gratitude until they have an S.E.E.?

It seems implied to me that a large percentage — possibly a majority — of our culture does not understand gratitude in a way that produces visible results.

Put less nicely, we are a nation of spoiled brats.

(“Gratitude? What’s that? And where is my stimulus check?”)

Can Gratitude be Taught?

The next obvious question is: can gratitude be taught?

I don’t have an authoritative answer to that, and I suspect, in part, this would depend on the predisposition of the child, but feel that overall gratitude can be taught. Even institutional efforts like the Herb Alpert Foundation-sponsored Half Full (see “How Not to Raise an Ungrateful Brat,” a conversation between sociologist Dr. Christine Carter and author Kelly Corrigan) affirm this.

Naturally it has to be done by parents who see the basic need for it and have secured the emotional and physical resources to follow through. This would in turn imply a family that is basically functional.

(I think I hear someone laughing in the back row.)

Coming to Gratitude the Hard Way

Despite calling and thinking of themselves as upstanding people, my parents did not recognize the need or secure the emotional resources to inculcate a sense of gratitude to me; and no, it wasn’t a Leave it to Beaver household, thank you.

In thinking back, I actually had two “come to gratitude” events in my life, and in my first one, I didn’t “get” it.

Back in my twenties I was heading home from work, southbound on Phoenix Arizona’s Tatum Road, in the slow lane, hugging the 45 miles per hour speed limit of the four lane commute artery. In a particularly scenic stretch there were only a few intersecting roads that were scarcely more than driveways for the high-end estates that overlooked the thoroughfare.

Suddenly a white station wagon lunged onto the road, directly in my path.

Entirely by instinct, with absolutely no idea what might be behind or beside me, I jumped into the left lane — which thankfully was empty — and escaped what probably would have been instant death.

Fortunately I didn’t need a change of underwear when I got home — though I suspect I was probably whiter than I am now for a little while. I sat down in a living room comfy chair and shook for probably a good ten minutes.

I didn’t think it in so many words, and being the kind of person I was at the time I certainly never expressed it, but I know that evening I was grateful that I was still alive.

But I didn’t integrate the event into my worldview. I didn’t grasp the concept of gratitude and see if I could reapply it to the rest of my life.

I didn’t “get” it.

Many years later I basically walked away from an auto accident that involved a fatality (no fault of mine, thank God). Though the shock of it wore off fairly quickly, it took me years to really sort through it. But I did finally, and I “got” gratitude that time.

Why didn’t I get it the first time?

There are three differences between the Daniel that had the near-accident back in 1982, and Daniel that had the accident he walked away from in 1999:

  1. Seventeen years. (Yes, I grew up some more.)
  2. The kind of culture that would support the type of material and ideas that are commonplace on The Oprah Winfrey Show that didn’t exist in 1982. It is only fitting to champion Oprah for bringing into popular culture people like Sarah Ban Breathnach (author of the gratitude staple Simple Abundance), yet I think Oprah was responding to a need she was astute enough to perceive that existed in our culture. Otherwise her efforts wouldn’t have been successful.
  3. 9/11, two years later.

9/11 was a cultural S.E.E. 9/11 made us all step back. Some of us turned into war-mongering superpatriots, and some of us became more reflective. 9/11 galvanized my understanding — and probably the understanding of millions of others — of the power of gratitude. This understanding of gratitude, in fact, was the main tool I used to finish processing out the traumatic impact the 1999 accident had on me.

(Katrina, oddly, didn’t have the same impact on us as a culture. I suspect it was because there was no challenge to our nationality involved — it was simply a brutal act of unstoppable Nature. Nationalism is apparently a bigger “hot button.” )

Even though I think many had a lasting change with 9/11 — they “got” gratitude — others lost the initial glimmering.

As with me and my earlier accident, for some of us it didn’t “stick.”

What We Must Do

What we must do then (yes, I’m using that imperative “must” word) is those of us who are mindful of the power of gratitude, those of us in mentoring or parenting roles, need to take that effort, need to make that choice, and then need to follow through with the commitment to teach this powerful tool to those we have chosen to lead or of whom we are responsible.

The recognition of the importance of gratitude shouldn’t take a dire personal crisis or outer catastrophe. It should be sown into our character so that it naturally blossoms in us, abundant and deeply rooted, and present whether it is needed or not.

I would like to think I am doing this, here, in my own little way.

Will you help me?

I’d very much like to thank Brenda Arnall, author of the weblog It’s a New Day, for pointing me to Mr. Hall and his message.

(And those of you who didn’t watch the video: go back and watch it.)

Copyright © 2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.


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Daniel Brenton is the creator/author of the 5 Second Novel series, co-author of the space race thriller Red Moon (with David S. Michaels), and is the author of the satirical column The Round Files, published in Stuart Miller’s short-lived Alien Worlds Magazine.

Despite being a writer, Daniel has no cats at this time, is unwilling to become an alcoholic, and has a very difficult time keeping a straight face while writing about himself in third person.

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