Why is gratitude so important to me? And why do I think it’s important for all of us? Here’s why.
Those of you who have been following me for a while but don’t happen to feel the same passion about gratitude as yours truly, have probably found themselves thinking: boy, this guy has it bad, doesn’t he?
I could certainly think of worse fixations, but I plead guilty as charged. (And I’ll add, you should be so guilty.)
It only seems appropriate that I should explain why I feel so strongly. I’ve touched on it here in a few places, but if you’ve read Evan Hadkin’s interview of me on his blog Living Authentically, (Part One here, Part Two here) you have a big part of the story. But … you don’t have quite all of it.
Here, then, is how I “got” gratitude.
I Am Grateful I am Still Alive
As I’ve noted here previously, it seems clear to me that some people come to recognize gratitude “the hard way,” through what Dr. Morris Massey of the University of Colorado calls a “Significant Emotional Experience,” or an SEE. This is my experience. When it comes to gratitude, the biggest SEE in my life happened one night shortly after midnight, early in 1999.
I had just finished my work shift and started the drive home. I headed up the freeway on-ramp I usually took, and moments after I made it onto the freeway the beams of my headlights washed over a man in dark clothing directly in front of me, facing away from me, and walking on the left-hand side of the right lane in the same direction as traffic. I was probably going 55-60 miles per hour when we collided, and the collision killed him instantly.
I learned later that his name, eerily, was also Daniel.
I was not at fault legally, and was not cited by the highway patrol. Nor was I at fault morally or ethically, because, if nothing else, I had no choice in the situation — when I saw him, he was practically on top of me, and I had no time to react.
I was told by the highway patrol officers that this “other Daniel” fit the profile of a homeless person, and despite the condition of his body after the accident it smelled strongly of alcohol. I later learned there was a toddler daughter in the picture, and the mother, for whatever reason, was not. I can only interpret his presence there as at very least an unconscious act of suicide, and effectively speaking that this child was abandoned in this act.
Looking at his crumpled body was not a pleasant experience, but I did it, and I felt sorrow that this had happened. I did not (and do not) have the power to undo this. I had to move on.
I was shaken up, but I get the impression I dealt with the experience better than most, and I was driving the freeways again at night a few weeks later.
However, it took me several years to really process through the whole experience properly. Reflecting on it over the next year, I came to realize that had any of a number of conditions been only the slightest bit different, I would have been killed, my wife would have become a widow, and a number of ugly things would have happened to her in the following years that my presence in her life have prevented.
(You could say that this was a little like living through my own version of It’s a Wonderful Life without having to think about jumping off of a bridge … or dealing with a marginally competent angel trying to earn his wings.)
(And I’m no Jimmy Stewart.)
There’s learning gratitude “the hard way,” and there’s learning it the “no-where-near-as-painful-but-you-gotta-put-in-the-work-you-lazy-butt” way. This latter way is by starting and sticking to a gratitude practice, such as keeping a gratitude journal. Though I did it without intending to, I’ve actually done the latter as well.
Early in 2001 the recognition of gratitude had started to take root in me. I had been writing free-verse poetry for about a year prior, and during this time I wrote a longer piece called “A Near Life Experience,” poking fun at the cultural bias to dismiss gratitude and insist the glass is half empty.
Then, that Tuesday in September, the world became something none of us recognized.
When I came into work that morning there was buzz about some airplane and the World Trade Center. I wasn’t in the practice of watching morning news or listening to the radio during the drive into work, so this turn of events came as a complete surprise to me.
I followed as much as I could through the CNN website, and mid-morning, we as a company were sent home because, as a government contractor, we worked for a federal agency and the threat could potentially have extended to us.
At home, I watched the story unfold and was hypnotized by the incessantly repeated images of the planes striking the Twin Towers.
During that period it seemed like anyone with an email account was endlessly forwarding messages related to the terrorist attacks, and amidst the patriotic pronouncements, crude anti-Arab jokes, and bellicose calls for flattening the Middle East was a plain statement of before and after called “What a Difference a Day Makes.” What the simple message lacked in eloquence it made up for in sheer power. Those few lines, beyond any other forwarded messages I saw, brought into focus for me the significance and necessity of gratitude.
Researching this a couple of years ago, I found that the author has still not come forward, and that there are several slightly different versions of it. The version I received started with the lines:
On Monday we emailed jokes
On Tuesday we emailed prayers
It continued, in part:
On Monday we thought we were secure
On Tuesday we learned better
On Monday people fought about praying in schools
On Tuesday you would have been hard pressed to find a school where someone was not praying
On Monday our heroes were athletes
On Tuesday we learned who our heroes really are
On Monday we were man or woman, black or white or yellow or red, old or young, rich or poor, gay or straight, Christian or Jew or Muslim or something else
On Tuesday we were Americans
But the real message was a little postscript that followed these lines, which read:
It is sadly ironic how it takes horrific events to place things into perspective, but it has. The lessons learned this week, the things we have taken for granted, the things that have been forgotten or overlooked, hopefully will never be forgotten again.
Two months later, on the day before Thanksgiving, The Oprah Winfrey Show feature a number of individuals who had, in the wake of 9/11, made gratitude a focus in their lives. (In hindsight, this drove home to me that 9/11 was a cultural SEE, and the sheer impact of it woke some people up to the value of gratitude.) This particular episode sparked in me a desire to communicate the value of gratitude, and shortly after this I began writing short free verse poems I called “GratefulNotes,” each capturing something in my life I felt gratitude for.
After a few months — and about 80 pieces — I began to see that by focusing on the things, feelings, and experiences I felt grateful for, my perception of life had changed subtly. Life’s sharp edges didn’t seem as sharp. For someone who had practically been born a curmudgeon, I found myself having moments of appreciation and reverence for my life and the things in it I had not before.
After about a year and a half, and a little over 140 pieces, I recognized I was beginning to repeat myself in terms of subject matter, and put my GratefulNotes aside. However, the “damage” was done — I was seeing patterns and meaning I had been blind to previously. My accidental gratitude practice had deepened my spirituality.
A Message to Not Throw It All Away
Starting in 2002, I was drawn to share a message of the value of gratitude and joined Toastmasters International to start learning the skills to do this. For subject matter, I returned to September 11 and the tremendous impact it had on me, and later to the accident in 1999.
In wrestling with the words and acknowledging with gratitude the numerous seemingly fortuitous things that had conspired to leave me a survivor in the accident, it became apparent to me that there was a reason I had been spared. And with this, I recognized there was a message for me in the accident, a message I had not been able to hear until then.
As harsh as this may sound, it seems clear to me this Daniel, this man who somehow lost his way and wound up getting in front of a vehicle going freeway speed, threw his life away that night twelve years ago.
The message that I finally got was for me to not throw my life away.
I have been given talents that I could use to make other people’s lives better, and if I didn’t use them, I pretty much was doing just that — throwing my life away.
Gratitude, in a very real sense, gave me my life back.
I am grateful I had that experience. I am grateful I came through it relatively unscathed, yes, but as hard as it was I am also grateful that I had it, because it was a moment that defined me, that showed me meaning, and showed me the deeper power of gratitude.
It’s That Important
It took me quite some time to acknowledge that I have something to share with the world, and for me to embrace the message of the power of gratitude. I know some of you recognize the tremendous worth of gratitude, and understand it clearly, and some of you may have been puzzling over why I feel this is so important.
Perhaps I have answered this for you. Perhaps you are still puzzling. I hope it is the former.
Gratitude changed me, and changed me for the better. I am convinced it changes everyone who really understands it, and I am convinced there are only a few (due to psychological issues) that are truly incapable of that.
It’s here for everyone.
If you haven’t found it, let me help. If I can’t help you, find someone who can. It’s that important.
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A version of this article originally appeared on my blog Gratitude Watch, which I closed in 2011.
Copyright © 2011-2012, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.