Gratitude is a companion to kindness
DONNA CAMERON is the author of A Year of Living Kindly. In this chapter from her book, she explores the significance of gratitude in daily life.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life
is thank you, it will be enough.”
Many countries and cultures have holidays devoted to gratitude. Americans and Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving, though not on the same dates. It is an opportunity for us to pause and acknowledge our countries’ heritage and all we – collectively and individually – have to be thankful for. Ideally, we should be doing this every day of our lives, but sometimes business and busyness crowd out gratitude.
Throughout my year of living kindly, I noticed over and over that kindness and gratitude go hand in hand and augment one another. This is never more evident to me as when I spend time in Nature. Whether I’m hiking, relaxing on my deck with its view of the Cascade Mountains, or strolling my neighborhood, I often feel my heart opening to the nature around me – the flight and song of birds, the vast variety of trees and the way they change with the seasons, the surge of the creek in winter and its lazy amble in summer, the deer that visit our yard to nibble on the fallen apples. These things make me want to give back to the Earth and to my community.
I was attending a weekend conference in Pittsburgh during my year of living kindly. It was late May, and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me. The park was like a living organism – children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand in hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how blessed I was to be able to experience it all – the park, the conference, the travel, the people I was meeting, and the ideas I was encountering. Gratitude filled every pore.
After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch. From my seat, I could still see the activity of the park and the bustle of Pittsburgh’s busy streets. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, ‘Please help’.
Throughout my year of living kindly,
I noticed over and over that kindness
and gratitude go hand in hand and augment one another.
I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”
His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.”
I handed the restaurant bag to him and reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two, and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can but then rushing off without a word. The gratitude I had been feeling opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. There was no question in my mind, though, that I had received the greater gift that afternoon.
I saw that when I am in touch with my gratitude, kindness flows naturally and effortlessly. If kindness feels hard to summon, I’ve learned that taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings, my friends and loved ones, or little things that fill me with delight, inspires a surge of kindness.
I’ve come to see that there are many ways that kindness and gratitude together produce almost alchemical results.
Both gratitude and kindness ask us to slow down. Slowing down isn’t always easy in our overscheduled and overactive lives. I often feel like I’m rushing from one deadline to the next, one obligation to the next, ruled by a lengthy to-do list. But slowing down is essential if we are to notice and appreciate the sunrise, the crocuses bursting forth, the birds circling overhead like ice-skaters with wings. And slowing down is essential if we are to notice the smile on the cashier’s face, the door held open for us, or the myriad opportunities before us each day to extend our own kindnesses.
I’ve learned that taking a moment
to appreciate my surroundings,
my friends and loved ones,
or little things that fill me with delight,
inspires a surge of kindness.
AN OPEN HEART
When I experience gratitude, my heart feels open. It is a feeling of abundance and sufficiency. This is all I need. It is also a feeling of presence – what happened five minutes ago doesn’t matter, and what will happen five minutes from now doesn’t matter. I am in the moment.
Likewise, the experience of kindness – whether given, received, or even just witnessed – opens my heart and allows me to feel fully present in the moment. For that brief moment, kindness is all that matters. It reminds me of one of my very favorite quotes, by Henry James: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
Abundance is also a companion of kindness. If we believe we are enough, we can easily believe we have enough. Both of these beliefs help us to reserve judgment and extend kindness. And that sense of abundance, whether related to gratitude or kindness – or most likely, both – inspires us to be generous with our time, our words, our deeds, and our resources.
I’ve found that it’s difficult to be angry or fearful when one experiences gratitude. If my heart is grateful, I feel no need to summon ire if I am cut off in traffic or spoken to harshly. I’m less likely to be frightened by a new or daunting situation. Perhaps there’s simply no space for these emotions when I am filled with gratitude, or maybe gratitude has a way of neutralizing the effects of these negative emotions.
This belief is often challenged when I hear about the most recent terrorist attack or the latest mass shooting. Those events spawn fear and anger, not just in the people directly affected, but in people all over the world. While there may also be gratitude that one’s family and friends were spared, and gratitude for the outpouring of support for the victims, can gratitude completely rout the fear and anger? I think not. But maybe there can be moments when gratitude at least overrides fear and lets us see that there is much to appreciate, even in the midst of terror attacks, natural disasters, or personal catastrophe. Maybe it’s gratitude that helps us recover from the worst things that can befall us.
SERVICE TO THE PLANET
When we are grateful for something, our instinct is to protect and defend it. If we stand in awe at the edge of the ocean, or if we marvel at the canopy of trees above us as we hike through the nearby hills, our natural desire is to shield them from harm, to assure that they will always be there for us and for future generations to appreciate. Our gratitude puts us in service to life – what could be more important?
Kindness, too, places us in service to life. We feel a physical connection to our surroundings and to the people around us when we engage in kind acts. Both the acts and the sense of connection are our acknowledgment that the ultimate kindness is to honor the earth and our fellow inhabitants – human and otherwise. A healthy planet and sustainable practices are the kindest gifts we can offer one another and the generations that follow us.
It’s lovely if gratitude comes to us frequently and effortlessly, but that is not always the case. Gratitude, like kindness, tennis, or piano-playing, is strengthened with practice. The more we do it, the more we experience it, and the better we become at expressing it. If you do an online search for ‘gratitude practices’ you will find countless suggestions, from daily meditation, to keeping a gratitude journal, to prayer. I try to spend a few moments each morning before I get up thinking about the things I have to be grateful for. Another creative approach is to create ‘trigger’ occasions that you use to establish a habit of gratitude. For example, every time you stop at a red light, use the moment to think of something you’re grateful for.
There’s another splendid gratitude practice that I love and practice occasionally. Physician and teacher Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen teaches this exercise that she learned from anthropologist Angeles Arrien. It’s simple and takes very little time. Here’s all you do:
At the end of each day, sit down for a few minutes and answer these questions:
What surprised me today?
What moved or touched me today?
What inspired me today?
When I experience gratitude,
my heart feels open.
It is a feeling of abundance and sufficiency.
This is all I need.
Your answers can be just a few words. What you’re trying to do is summon the memory of things that moved you.
As Dr. Remen describes, “The most interesting thing happens, then. Often people are surprised eight or nine hours after something happens when they look back on it deliberately. But [by doing this exercise] that gap shortens until eventually they are able to see in the very moment what surprises them, what touches them, and what inspires them. And then everything changes. The world has not changed, but they have begun to be able to see the world, and they can communicate that experience. … It changes everything. It’s a question of paying attention.”
It’s true. At first this is difficult. You may come up blank day after day. “Nothing surprised me,” or “Nothing inspired me.” But if you keep searching, you will think of something. “Oh, yes, I was touched when I saw those children playing in the park.” And just as Dr. Remen says, with practice you begin to notice things that touch or surprise or inspire you the moment they happen. That creates an enduring state of gratitude, not to mention presence.
One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is taking the time to think about what we are grateful for – both the obvious and the small, hidden, even quirky things that enrich life. Daily recognition of the multitude of big and little things we have to be grateful for is a wonderful way to live in perpetual thanksgiving.
KINDNESS IN ACTION
Make an effort to say ‘thank you’ more often in your daily interactions, and when you say it, mean it.
If you don’t already have one, think about a daily gratitude practice that will work for you – a gratitude journal, a few moments of reflection, a trigger activity, perhaps Rachel Remen’s simple exercise – then try it for three weeks. Notice whether it changes your awareness of how many things there are in your life to be grateful for. Notice also if it makes you more aware of kindness – your own and others’.
If you find yourself in a situation that may provoke anger or fear, try summoning gratitude to counteract their effects. Talk about gratitude with your family. Perhaps make it a game at the dinner table, or when you’re on a long drive, to name all the things you have to be grateful for.