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?