Monday, November 24, 2008

Thankfulness vs. Appreciation

During Thanksgiving week, most columnists, essayists and those who simply like to hear themselves speak, like to use thankfulness as a topic. It’s not surprising. The holiday industry of enforced merriment over Thanksgiving makes greeting card topics at the forefront of everyone’s consciousness. And yet, thankfulness is not bad a subject to discuss. It’s just overused in November every year. People are forced to say what they’re “thankful for” around the Thanksgiving table, putting one on the spot to come up with something original that will entertain their guests, make a profound point, or just avoid drawing a complete blank when called upon. There are only so many times you can “good health” or “an A on my Biology quiz” at this moment in the judgment seat.

Instead of thankfulness as a trite, sugary notion we trot out alongside the turkey, I hope to incorporate a spirit of appreciation, rather than thankfulness. Most people would say “But they’re the same thing !” and roll their eyes at me. I beg to differ. I believe that thankfulness is something we feel internally. Appreciation, however, is something we share. The emotions and ideas are similar, but truly, the execution is different. Thankfulness is often about a ‘thing’, be it that test in school, a roof over your head or being grateful that the sweet potatoes didn’t catch on fire. Appreciation is usually generated towards another person: the stranger who smiled and cheered you up on a bad day, a friend who’s willing to come lend a hand to help you move or your family willing to fly across country to visit you in the hospital. Appreciation means going outside of your own box of emotions and expressing those feelings of gratitude to another human being. Maybe it’s simply a smile back at the kind, and patient, shopper behind you who isn’t hissing at you to hurry up when you can’t find your wallet. Perhaps, it’s telling your friend all the things about her that you love. What about expressing all the little things your mom has done for you over the years that have added up to a lifetime of blessings ? Appreciation goes beyond thankfulness. It places the responsibility of sharing how much we truly value that other person’s place in our lives. For many of us, there is also no greater gift than knowing we’ve made a difference, no matter how small, in the life of another.

In Yoga, cultivating gratitude is part of the daily practice. As we sit and focus on nothing but the breath, we draw inside ourselves, quiet our minds, and let go of all the extraneous, external concerns, or ‘mind trash’, that we have accumulated. The breath brings with it all good things, and a seated, peace-filled, meditative breath can leave the yogini feeling a deep sense of appreciation those who have made a difference in her life. Sometimes, I believe we aren’t being selfish by our lack of expressed appreciation. We are simply overwhelmed by the day to day toll that life takes on us. We worry about deadlines, bills and finances. We are concerned about the war, the economy and the fact that our dog just ran away. We stress over gaining 5 (or 20) pounds and know that the holiday season isn’t going to help our waistlines much. With all these thoughts pulling us in a thousand directions, is it any wonder that we often forget to express gratitude ? Often, we’re just so grateful when something does go ‘right’ that we forget the appreciation part of it ! But, bringing yourself back to the breath, every day, even for a few minutes, can help move away the clutter and bring forward the sense of appreciation you do feel…and do want to share.

There are endlessly creative ways to share appreciation with people. For someone who helped you long ago, I can’t think of a more remarkable gift than a letter expressing the moment that person touched your life. For a friend who has picked up your children more times than you can count, a bottle of wine, and gift certificate to her favorite restaurant---or even a home cooked meal, delivered to her door, might be just what she needs to know her actions were felt by you. For someone you love deeply, listening to them….really listening, not just nodding along, can be create a deep impact….making eye contact, asking questions about him (instead of rambling on about you !), can show your love, as well as your appreciation. The more you think about the person whom you’d like to shower with gratitude, the more you place are out of yourself and into them. The right path of expressing your thanks will make itself known.

So, ring your neighbor’s doorbell and leave cookies on her porch, or hug a friend who is having a bad day. Hire a sky writer to thank someone who saved your life or shout it from the rooftops (metaphorically or otherwise)! Appreciate those around you…and I promise, the world will be a better place.

Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone. ~G.B. Stern

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