The Absence and Presence that Lead to Gratitude

November brings with it cooler weather, leaves of gold and the feeling of thanks in the air. It’s the perfect time to begin a practice of gratitude. You Know Neen is hosting the 2nd Annual 30 Days of Gratitude blog series, a place where the experience of gratitude will be explored and shared. I, along with several other contributors will be sharing our thoughts on all things gratitude. 

Written by Brett Baker

“There are starving people in China.”images

I’m sorry to say that it took me a couple of decades before I discovered what that sentence actually means. As a kid, if someone said that to me, my immediate (sometimes expressed) reaction was, “What the hell do you want me to do about it? Am I supposed to put these leftovers in a box and send it to them?”

But really, that sentence—or one of its many derivatives—is a basic expression of gratitude. Or, rather, the need for gratitude.

Only when the omitted, implied second half of that sentence is included do dense, unreflective idiots like my teenage self understand the true meaning. “There are starving people in China, so don’t take that food for granted and throw it in the garbage.”

I have food, and people on the other side of the world don’t, so I should appreciate what I have.

And right or wrong, it’s presence and absence that fuel the very powerful gratitude machine that lives inside of me.

I started a gratitude journal last year. It has two entries. I haven’t done anything with it since. But I don’t feel all that bad about it because in thinking about the journal, I discovered that practicing gratitude is ingrained into my existence.

I practice gratitude on a daily basis. Most of the time this gratitude is a by-product of observations I have about the situation in which someone else is living.

I see a homeless person on the street: I’m grateful for my home. I see an elderly person who has trouble walking: I’m grateful that I can run. I see a person who’s unemployed: I’m grateful that I have a job.

As much as I hate to think that I’m benefitting from someone else’s misfortune, in a way, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Not only am I lucky enough not to experience whatever hardship that person is enduring, but because I see what they’re going through I give myself the gift of gratitude.

But it’s not just a gift. I ask something of myself, too. I ask myself to pay attention. I ask myself to see the world through that person’s eyes, to imagine what it’s like to walk in that person’s shoes.

And when I take the time to see things from someone else’s perspective, the world opens. When we see other people’s problems it helps us to understand them better. And understanding other people helps us understand ourselves.

The difficult part of this process is that I often see things that I wish I didn’t see.

I brought two of my kids to Wrigley Field before game three of the World Series, and as we exited an apparel shop, a woman in a wheelchair sat on the corner and shouted, “Will someone please help me? Can someone help me?” She held a cup with a few coins in.

The dichotomy of the situation smothered me. On the one hand were thousands of people milling about, joyful, excited, and spending money on apparel that none of us really needed. And on the other was this woman who probably had nowhere else to go, and hadn’t worn clean clothes in weeks, and who had to rely on the kindness of strangers for her survival.

We gave her a couple of dollars, and then crossed Addison Street, and continued exploring, snapping pictures, laughing. And she continued to sit there shouting, “Will someone please help me?”

I’d enjoyed being there with my kids. They were excited to be among the hordes of people, on the cusp of history. But I’d been thinking about previous trips to Wrigley Field, and about what I wanted to show them. It took the desperate pleas of that woman to make me understand just how lucky we were.

And while gratitude can require us to look at ourselves, it can also require us to look outward. In doing so we can quickly realize how good our own lives are. We see the problems we don’t have, the resources we do have, and the advantages we don’t acknowledge.

From there it’s just a short skip to imagining what our lives would be like if we didn’t have those advantages, or if we had to face those challenges, or if our luck ran out.

Then we realize that if certain things were present, or other things were absent, our lives would be worse.

And that is gratitude.

Brett Baker writes the blog, Dry it in the Water  Follow him via Facebook.

Related posts:

A Letter to the Homeless Man on The Corner

How a tradition born out of sadness became my favorite day of the year

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