Editor’s note: This column was first published in The Spokesman-Review on Feb. 19, 2000.
A lot of us have this bad habit called “taking things for granted.”
This is not a healthy habit to cultivate. It has unfortunate side effects, such as causing us to sleepwalk through our pathetic little lives without even once stopping to appreciate the people we love, the friends we have made, the gifts we have been given, the beauty of our surroundings, the blessings we have been granted and the ineffable majesty of the vast cosmos in which we are privileged to exist.
Aside from that, we annoy people. We become royal pains in the neck to everyone we know, since they are the ones being taken for granted, and nobody likes that. So, we spend our lives irritating our friends and loved ones, and probably even irritating the vast cosmos, assuming the vast cosmos cares.
Now, if you don’t mind sleepwalking through your pathetic little life, then go ahead and proceed exactly as usual. However, if you want to change your sad ways, then here are a few easy steps to follow in my Twelve Steps to the New Gratitude (soon to be a major self-help book, which will foment a New Gratitude Revolution in America for about two weeks until the next fad comes along):
• Get rid of the idea that the world has been ordered for your convenience. I know this is difficult to imagine, but the purpose of the world is not to make you happy. So, if people do nice things for you or help you out along the way, this is not because they were put here on Earth for your assistance. They do nice things for you because they want to. They don’t have to. All that they require in return is a nice “thank you” every so often. It makes them feel appreciated and makes them feel that the nice things they are doing are not wasted. And on a more practical note, it prevents them from saying, “To heck with you,” and finding someone else to help out.
• Remember that time is fleeting and things change. We all think that our mundane lives and families and jobs are all somehow permanent and that they will be here tomorrow and the day after that. Excuse me while I laugh at this silly human notion. Nothing is more certain than change. That mundane life of yours might be transformed tomorrow in ways that you can’t anticipate. Your family, your friends, they will all change over time. The only thing more certain than change is the certainty that when life does change, you will regret that you didn’t pay more attention, didn’t express more appreciation, didn’t burn that happiness into your memory banks more thoroughly.
• Stop, look and listen. Imagine that you somehow have been allowed to come back as a ghost and look at yourself living your life, like a character in a certain Thornton Wilder play or in a certain Charles Dickens novel. You would be appalled to see how little heed you pay to your children, for instance, when they are begging for your attention. Or how little love you show to your spouse on a daily basis despite the fact that you know in your heart that she is the deepest love of your life. Or how easily irritated you get with your parents, or your siblings, or your best friends, or your co-workers. As your ghostly self watches your worldly self cruising through life, thoughtless and distracted, you know that if you could do it over again, you would do it much better. So, the challenge is: Pay attention now in this life. What’s so hard about that? Get on with it.
• Remember that you were born lucky. No matter how unfortunate you feel for not having been born rich, or brilliant, or beautiful, or talented in some televised sport, you were still born lucky. That is because you were born into a country and society that is affluent and civilized by almost any measure. So you’re not rich. You are also not, by the accident of birth, living in a country that is afflicted with starvation, with rival militia gangs, with fleeing refugees, with mindless factional fighting, with cholera epidemics and with the casual cruelty born of desperation. Millions are. Cut the whining.
• Remember that times could be worse and almost always were. Just about the time you are feeling most sorry for yourself, try to recall once again that, due to the lucky accident of timing, you are not a galley slave, a downtrodden serf, a sacrificial virgin, a captured prisoner, a Black Plague victim or a person in a rail car on the way to Auschwitz. Any of the aforementioned would have no trouble appreciating the relative tranquility and freedom of America in the year 2000.
• Stop and smell the roses. I know it’s a cliche, but roses do smell good, and you should lose no opportunity to sniff them.
• And finally, the most severe step: Lose something important in your life. I don’t wish it on anyone. Yet it’s the only thing that truly seems to work for most of us. Only when we lose a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a best friend, our health, our job, our freedom or just about anything of value to us do we truly stop taking our world for granted.
At that point, of course, it might be too late. Try this instead. Stop taking things for granted before you lose them. It’s so much more satisfying.
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