Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It ain't about platitudes

One version of the story goes that twin boys awoke on their birthday to entirely different gifts: one was led outside and handed the reins to a beautiful horse, and the other to a stall in the barn where he was given a shovel. The first boy looked at his father and said, "how am I supposed to care for this animal? I don't have the time or the skills to ride him and the feeding and grooming and cleanup will be such a pain. Some gift, dad." The other boy opened the stall to discover an enormous pile of manure, and cheerily started digging away. An hour later, his father came by and asked him how he was doing. "Great, Dad," the boy said, "with a pile of manure this big, there HAS to be a pony in here somewhere."

And that, they say, is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist.

Perhaps like me you would like it to be that simple. Perhaps you are one of those blessed people for whom it just IS that simple. I have a friend, sort of an erstwhile colleague, who is such a person - even with the kind of painfully challenging circumstances that would put some people face-down in a bucket of prozac, she is cheerful, positive, and unswervingly convinced that today is brilliantly beautiful and tomorrow's gonna be even better. I stay in touch with her because being near her even through e-mail charges my battery. She seems not to mind this.

There is so much to be grateful for. And of course, the news out in the world looks a lot more like the pile of manure than it does like the newly-arrived, beautiful horse just waiting to be saddled up and ridden off into the hills.

A lot of the news makes me angry - stories of obviously corrupt money managers, government responses to economic crises that in my view will make things worse, people focused relentlessly on winning partisan arguments or with tearing others down rather than doing their part to build a better future, and onward. It is clear that I'm not alone in these reactions.

I also notice that since beginning this year of gratitude project I am unquestionably happier. I live in greater harmony with my wife and daughter (not that it was discordant before... it's just that much sweeter now). My resistance to fear and challenge is stronger, my mental flexibility is greater, and my self-confidence is rising. These are good things; more importantly, if I can do this then there is no question that anyone else can, too.

Of course, though, there's a real tension between being focused on gratitude and denying oneself the natural reaction to stories about the discovery of yet another multi-billion-dollar fraud that will be paid off with tax money. Some suggest that the resolution to that tension is just to smile and say the equivalent of "there's gotta be a pony in here somewhere." This doesn't fit with me though. So how do we do it? I'm convinced more and more that a grateful orientation is a source of positive action for individuals, for groups, for organizations, and probably even for society. If that's the case, then how do we deal with the problems that really are getting in our way? How do we engage with the current news, the current challenges constructively? What do we do to create a feedback loop in which a grateful bearing begets acts of service and creation, thus expanding gratitude?

Platitudes aren't going to get it done. So tell me... what is?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Sleeping Angels

The upside of insomnia is that if you play it right you get some nice, quiet time to think and relax. So I reminded myself when I snapped awake at 2:50 this morning. I listened for a while to the roaring wind and to the softer, more peaceful rhythm of my wife's breathing. At one point she began to twitch and move, her breathing coming faster: she was dreaming. The dream passed, she rolled to face me and her arm brushed across my chest and shoulder. I felt her gentle squeeze, and lay still as she settled in deeper.

Sleep was coming no closer to me so finally at 4:15 I got up, dressed, made myself a cup of coffee and went upstairs to peek in on our daughter. She is learning to read now and it captures her focus like nothing I've seen. Her bed, therefore, is covered not just with stuffed animals but also with books. I found her on her side, snuggled up with a treasured puppy and a copy of "The Cat in the Hat."

Last night my wife and I talked about how nearly all the people we know have been impacted in some way by the current economic storm. We've been incredibly fortunate; I am still employed though the axe has swung awfully close more times than I'd like to count. As the sole breadwinner for our family, these sleeping angels are my responsibility. It is an awesome gift. They'll sleep a couple hours more, and then it will be our Saturday, full of the here and there of any normal weekend.

This morning I am grateful to the deepest part of my soul for the gift of their peaceful sleep. I'll sleep too some night. Until then, I can peek in on the Doodlebug, safe with her books and her stuffed friends, and I can feel Linda's familiar arm pulling me closer as she settles from a dream.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This just very quickly

I have been away from here. In the wilderness. That would be the wilderness between my ears, of course. The year of gratitude is on.

Have you ever noticed that when you really commit to something, at first you must wade through all your reasons why staying committed is a really, really bad idea? Thank you, that's February. I have been an ungrateful, agitated mess.

Last year the company I've been with for four-plus years was acquired by a behemoth that's in the news a lot these days. In October, I was asked to join a workgroup of five people. This beats the heck out of being laid off, mind you. Join I did. In February, three of the five were let go as the group was reorganized. Last week, another of my teammates was axed, leaving me the last man standing.

For which I'm grateful. Of course.

And shaken to the core. I am the paycheck, I am the breadwinner, coo-coo-ca-choo.

Many of my former colleagues have been laid off through this period of transition, and many more will be. Some are bitter, others have discovered their passions and are pursuing those profitably. Some have discovered that the chase for more things (what Galbraith called "positional goods,") has left them empty, and what they really value is the time and freedom to do what they love with the people they love.

There it is, then: the realization that the only things of value are time and relationships. Sometimes as I contemplate what I'm grateful for, I can't help but see that I am mighty hungry in these areas. And mighty happy, too.

It's a paradox. For those of you who've asked me to come back to this blog more often, I thank you, and I promise I will. I appreciate you more than you know.