I woke up today in Miami, my second day at home, and the first thing I saw was a quote by the Dalai Lama.
“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others; to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can.”
I was given a cloth scroll with this quote when I performed a duet at a Tibetan NGO in Dharamsala (a beautiful Indian town in at the base of the Himalayas). The scroll is now hanging on the wall in my parents’ apartment and I haven’t thought about it in months. I sang on that tiny stage in May, but it feels like years have passed and I feel very far away from the girl I was then, walking slowly and contentedly through winding mountain streets.
But this morning I went back. The scroll, the message it prescribes, and this day – Thanksgiving – brought me back to India. A year ago today I was dancing with these faces, eating mutton and paneer instead of turkey.
At the end of the meal – when the dancing was over – we shared our gratitude. Throughout the day the students of Shanti Bhavan stopped by my office to anonymously write what they were thankful for and put it in a box. Some were thankful for their family – specifically, the way their parents worked so hard to give them better opportunities. Some were thankful for their education, aware that it was their best chance for a brighter future. They were thankful for their friends who have become family. Their talents that give them passion. A fourth grader said he was thankful for tigers. Who isn’t? One simply said, “I am thankful.” And maybe that is enough.
Gratitude is shown to make you healthier. And happier. Pretending to be grateful and positive, even if you aren’t, can even be enough at first. This decision, to focus on gratefulness, is a lot easier for some people than others. Some are blessed with more things to be grateful for, and some people are just more prone to be optimistic. An NYT article by Arthur Brooks summarized the science:
Beyond rotten circumstances, some people are just naturally more grateful than others. A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know who seem grateful all the time may simply be mutants.
I like to call myself a mutant because I have a hitch-hiker thumb and I don’t have earlobes (I actually do, they are just very very tiny and attached). But I don’t think I am an optimist mutant. I think I have taught myself – very slowly and at times with great failure – to choose gratitude over the last several years.
Even for people who are genetically predisposed to be content (I am hesitant to say happy – ‘whole’ and ‘happy’ are very different things), sometimes it is hard to be grateful because life is hard. We get sick, sad, confused, frustrated. We lose friends, family, and other things that we sometimes can’t replace. We lose our way. We lose inspiration. It takes a great deal of perspective to choose gratitude, especially when you are ten. So this year, on the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, we gave the kids a gratitude checklist.
- Did you wake up this morning?
- Were you able to see when you opened your eyes?
- Were you sleeping on a bed?
- Could you turn on the light?
- Did you have a bathroom available to use?
- When you counted your fingers and toes this morning, were they all there?
- Did you have breakfast?
- Did you have shoes to put on?
- Were you able to go to school?
- Did you feel safe when you came to school?
- Is there a book you haven’t read yet that you could get your hands on today and enjoy?
- Can you read?
- Do you have a special skill or hobby you enjoy?
- Is there at least one person in this world who you care about?
- Is there at least one person in this world who cares about you?
- Can you think of at least five other things to be grateful for today? What are they?
Then we gave them a piece of special Thanksgiving stationery (by that I mean it had a pumpkin and fall leaves on it). And we told them to write a letter to someone – anyone – thanking for them for something they don’t normally say thank you for. One girl wrote seven letters. One wrote her letter in Spanish so that her parents could read it. Some letters were long, others were short. And that is ok, because the thing about gratitude is that it doesn’t have to be grand. It doesn’t have to be sweeping. It can be as small as a handwritten card or a little boy who says I am the Batman to his Robin. That is his way of saying thank you and it is more than enough.
Last year I was ‘Ms. D’ and this year I am ‘Ms. Smogard’. Last year I was surrounded by people who had become family in a matter of months and this year I spent the day with the family I have always known. I think it is ok to feel far away from the person I was a year ago, because I am grateful for who I was then and who I am now. I am grateful for the ways I have changed and grown and the ways I have remained true to myself. Outpourings of gratitude always come at the end of November, even when we all know that being grateful one day out of 365 is not enough. It is still something though, and I am glad that we remember. Happy Thanksgiving.