Have you ever spent time pondering grateful expectations? No, it’s not a book by Charles Dickens … but rather a natural human desire to receive positive feedback from those you serve. Last week I had a little insight into my own grateful expectations when someone (my three-year old, to be specific) brushed past my kindest efforts in an entitled and indifferent manner. He is a three-year old after all. I don’t know what I should expect. But this incident bothered me and it made me think.
It was one of those days when he and I were home alone. And because all seven of his siblings were elsewhere, he was following me around, begging for my attention. He was asking me to build him a fortress. He looked up at me with big blue eyes full of longing, “Please, mommy!” And since it had been a while since I felt like the mother of the year, I decided to make his day.
Together we pulled four stools out of the kitchen and covered them with a big sheet. And I said, “Here’s your fortress Joshua!” and sent him inside to play. He quickly climbed in and then climbed right back out, declaring that it didn’t seem big enough. It already needed a renovation.
So I pulled over the piano bench and draped another blanket from it to the existing fortress! Again, I sent him inside to enjoy it. I even crouched down to climb inside with him. But instead of appreciation on his face, he looked like he was not quite satisfied.
Over and over again, he abandoned the fortress in order to find things with which to improve it. He brought pillows and books and toys. And when he had made a sufficiently large mess, he abandoned the fortress altogether. He never settled into imaginative play. He never sighed blissfully. He never smiled a heartwarming smile. He seemed to be too focused on what he didn’t have in that fortress, on what could be next, on what would make the whole experience just a little bit better.
Maybe this isn’t really what he was doing. Maybe he is just a little Tasmanian three-year old who makes messes for fun. But as I considered the situation, I projected myself a little and wondered if this wasn’t a reflection of me. Do I take time to enjoy the fortresses in my life and do I express gratitude to the sources from which they come? The truth is that sometimes I do, but only when I make a conscious effort. My default setting, like my three-year old’s, is to focus on what I don’t have.
I think it is very natural to miss out on the best feelings in life simply because of an errant paradigm. It is our mindset that determines our level of gratitude. Because we have the gift of self-awareness and moral agency, we can choose our mindset. And when the mindset we have chosen in the past is not serving us, we have the ability to evaluate our thinking and make changes.
The story of my three-year old illustrates how we can shortchange gratitude, thereby missing out on the deepest and most profound joys of living. By way of conscious endeavor, I want to reverse the experience now and consider three ways we can embrace a grateful life.
1. Turn Off Problem-Solving Mode
Joshua asked for a fortress, and he got it. But he was immediately focused on what was wrong with it and how he was going to fix it. This is problem-solving mode. I once read a wonderful article on “Selfless Gratitude” in which Phillip Moffat asserted that we shortchange gratitude whenever we get stuck in this mode. As humans, we have a remarkable ability to generate solutions to the problems we face. But oftentimes, we spend a disproportionate amount of our energy responding to the things we views as problems. As we solve these “problems” we experience a feeling of usefulness, of importance, which adds to a false sense of our identity. Our true identity is linked to our eternal status as beloved children of God and not to our problem-solving prowess.
When we focus the majority of our attention on problems, we lose sight of things as they really are. The reality is that our blessings always outnumber our problems! The very fact that we get to experience conscious embodiment, that we get to “move and breathe and do according to our wills,” is a transcendent blessing. I love Phillip Moffat’s words, “There will always be things wrong in your life. So you reduce your experience of being alive if you are only responding to the negative. Is that what you want out of life? Do you really want to delay your sense of being alive while you await a future, perfect moment that is unlikely to arrive?”
Life is much richer and we are much happier when we turn off problem-solving mode and turn on open-hearted gratitude mode. Not only does this help us savor the good, but it also affects the way we see challenges. Many things we would otherwise view as problems disappear altogether; or if they remain, we now see them as opportunities for learning and growth.
I remember in my childhood, during a particularly challenging year for my family, my grandmother expressed how grateful she was not to have any real problems. I felt confused because she was facing, what I considered to be, very difficult problems. But she never saw it that way. She only saw her blessings and, for that reason, she was always happy and an inspiration to many people.
2. Live In The Moment
In the experience I shared, Joshua was getting ready to enjoy his fortress, but the fun was just over the horizon. There was always just one more thing he needed before he could be happy. This kind of paradigm is widespread. We often look just beyond where we are. The grass is always greener. The truth is that our very natures are programmed to seek after growth and progress. As Wallace Wattles wrote, there is an “inherent desire of every living thing for increase of life. Every living thing must continually seek for enlargement of its life, because life, in the mere act of living, must increase itself. A seed dropped into the ground, springs into activity, and the act of living produces a hundred more seeds … We are subject to the urge of life seeking expression, to know more, to do more, and to be more.”
But sometimes as we pursue a life of more, we miss out on present abundance. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “We are always getting ready to live but never living.” Dieter Uchtdorf echoed that sentiment. He said, “So often we get caught up in the illusion that there is something just beyond our reach that will bring us happiness: a better family situation, a better financial situation, or the end of a challenging trial.” According to Walt Whitman, “Happiness [exists] not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour.” Whew, that’s a lot of quotes … All of these brilliant thinkers and many more have invited us to choose happiness right now.
Happiness comes through mindfully living in the moment.
Don’t wait to be happy. Be happy today. Be happy right now!
3. Observe the Golden Rule
In my experience with Joshua, he was very focused on himself, his expectations, his entertainment. He did not really think about me or how his attitudes and behavior affected my feelings. Because of this he failed to do two things: 1. express gratitude, and 2. fully enjoy himself. While his age may excuse his ingratitude, I’m a little older and have no such excuse. Before this experience I never made the connection between gratitude and the golden rule. I never recognized that ingratitude clearly violates this fundamental law, a law which is understood across all languages, creeds and religions traditions.
While I sometimes struggle to be grateful, I fully anticipate some form of positive feedback from those I serve. I have definite grateful expectations. How about you? Perhaps these expectations are born into us, to help us understand the importance of being grateful ourselves. We know how we feel when others respond to our service with entitlement or indifference.
The situation with my three-year old made it very clear that mindfully experiencing and expressing gratitude precedes happiness. We have to pay attention to the good to fully enjoy it. No wonder God has commanded us to give thanks in all things. He wants us to experience maximum joy. And when we refuse to be happy, put happiness on the back burner, or have a fixed focus on our problems, we are ignoring all He has given to us and what He desires us to experience and feel. We would never want to be treated that way by those we love and serve.
As we observe the golden rule, we naturally live more mindfully, which mindful living is linked to happiness. Observing the golden rule requires an elevated consciousness. In every thought and action, we must evaluate ourselves. Is this thought a thought I would want to be thought of me? Is this action an action I would want to be taken toward me? We cannot live blindly or passively. Rather, we must live with our eyes and minds and hearts wide open. And in this state, we will doubtless experience the inherent beauty and joy and wonder of life.
Happiness is dependent upon gratitude and gratitude is dependent upon our awareness of how blessed we truly are. Just the other day, I happened upon a sweet scene. That same three-year old boy, who was too busy to appreciate the fortress I made him, had made a fortress of his own and was thoroughly enjoying it. This little boy wanted a second chance – a do over. So he took one. And so can we. If we haven’t been as grateful and mindful and happy as God intended us to be, we have another chance. Every day that we live is another opportunity!
That fact, in and of itself, should evoke profound gratitude.