Thursday, November 22, 2007

Learning Gratitude

Walking the Bridle Path in Central Park. 1:15 PM. Photo: JH.
It got warmer, yesterday afternoon in New York, the day before Thanksgiving. I went over to Zabars to buy among other things a pumpkin pie. I’m going to my annual Thanksgiving dinner – this is the sixth or seventh year – with my friends the Browns to the Four Seasons Restaurant. The one thing I will miss from not having dinner at home is the pumpkin pie. Furthermore I want the whole pie. I could eat it all at one sitting although I won’t. Because I’m a good boy.

I read somewhere today that we consume enough calories on the Thanksgiving holiday to energize a runner in the New York Marathon, something which almost none of us is. So, the writer suggested, at least exercise.

However, it is important to not forget that there are also a lot of us out there across the world who will not be having that problem because they will not be having much, if anything, to eat. In the meantime, we can give, and we can be thankful. Which reminds me:

On Another Early Wednesday Evening Late Last Month. Down at Michael’s, Karl Wellner, Hilary and Wilbur Ross and Lauren and John Veronis hosted a party to celebrate the publications of “Thank You Power; Making the Science of Gratitude Work For You” written by Mr. Wellner’s wife, Deborah Norville. Ever heard of her? As it happens, I know the author too, and even more specifically, I am featured within her pages, as an example of what the book is about. No, it is not about me. It’s about the enhancement of gratitude in our daily lives.

I got involved quite accidentally through a conversation Deborah and I had at Joan Rivers’ dinner table one night about a year ago. She told me she was writing a book on Gratitude. I was intrigued because I’m not aware of a book on the subject and it is a subject that runs through my consciousness, especially when something is troubling me to the point where I’m having a hard time dealing. I happened to tell her of a personal experience related to the application of Gratitude. She asked if she could use it. I agreed.

I learned about Gratitude and Gratitude Lists in a 12 Step program (Al-Anon) years ago. Someone advised that it was a helpful tool in getting through harsh moments when emotions are in the driver’s seat and pressing the accelerator. Make a list of things you’re grateful for, is the simple instruction. This can be more difficult than it sounds because when the emotions are driving, the noise they create in your head is often a deafening sound.

The incident I related to Deborah had to do with a moment in my life about 15 years ago when I was first living here in New York,  and in quite uneasy circumstances trying to jump-start myself as a professional writer in need of making a living.  One winter morning I happened to have a conversation with a woman friend on the phone, and although I can’t recall what it was that set me off, my friend responded with some sarcastic and cutting words that sliced back to my childhood feelings of vulnerability; the feelings the often burden since children are more vulnerable and dependent. It was quite clearly a historical reaction to those times long ago. It disturbed me that I was still feeling that vulnerable.

I was crushed. It was exacerbated by the fact that I really love this woman and her words were quite insensitive, or at least thoughtless. I fell into a depression instantly – one of those moments when you’re overwhelmed and feel you can’t control your feelings.

Some might take a tranquilizer at that moment. My instinctive solution was to take a nap (anything to turn off my mind). But it so happened that morning I had a “grown-up” responsibility to take care of first: I had to go over to someone’s apartment to pick up a photo I was using for a piece I was writing for Quest. I had to deliver the photo that day for the printer. Reality. The writer’s fee.

So whatwith my Sturm und Drang whirling inside my mind, I decided that maybe a nice long walk to retrieve the photo would help. I couldn’t do anything about my friend’s words but I could possibly clean out my own head.

It also happened to be one of those ugly, cold and frigid grey mid-winter days in New York where very little on the exterior of the city looks good or inviting, and you’re conjuring up other climates (or seasons) for inner relief. A perfect day to hide your head under the covers.

It was an eight block crosstown walk; a long one for the bitter cold. Frustrated by my state of mind, I recalled the advice about a Gratitude List as something to focus on when you’re down (and feeling out).

So there I was on this grey pavement under cold grey skies in search of gratitude. I decided to take whatever came along. The first thing was a young woman wheeling a stroller toward me. Inside was a cute little one with a smiling face, far far away from my state of mind. I love children. That was my first entry to the Gratitude List.

And then, when I was looking up, streaking high across the sky was a shiny grey 747, heading off to other places and other lives. I have always been amazed by the miracle of these enormous machines lifting off the earth and flying around the globe. Second entry.

Then there were the 19th century doorways, and the people – people I don’t know – on the street going about their lives. I put them on all my List because it soon occurred to me that I was glad and grateful to be here, to be able to walk there, to have that assignment, to earn that fee, and to have so many other wonderful people in my life. I realized by the time I reached my destination that this previously overwhelming state of depression had virtually disappeared.

When I realized it, I was amazed at the effectiveness of Gratitude as a zen-like device. Furthermore, this same aforementioned friend who can be loose-lipped and unthinking with her words at times, went down that road again at other times afterwards. But her words no longer had the same effect. In fact, they provoke laughter in me. I love her. I’m grateful.

This is what Deborah Norville’s book is about. This is an excellent time of the year to embrace these thoughts and ideas.

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