Practicing gratitude

by Debra Gonsher Vinik, Ph.D.

 

On one early morning, a week before Christmas, I was one of four passengers in a van that slipped on the ice, careened and crashed into a guardrail.

We were making our way from graduate school at Northwestern University in Illinois back to New York City for winter break.

This accident happened near a small town in Pennsylvania with the endearing name of Snowshoe, not far from the highest point on I-80, east of the Mississippi.  I remember this kind of obscure piece of geographical flotsam because at that time, a lifetime ago, as the van slid toward its inevitable crash into the guardrail, I thought I was going to die. I wasn’t aware that someone could actually walk away from a car accident. And in those slow-motion, Hollywood version of those moments, I promised myself that if I lived, I would appreciate everything more—I would listen to the albums in the trunk that I was carrying from place to place, read those books I wanted to dive into, kiss my friends in New York with a passion that I could taste. I would make sure to be grateful for everything.  Oh God, I thought I am too young to die.

Well, obviously, the good news is that I didn’t! And as soon as we got to New York, I listened to that music, read books, and hugged every one of my friends as if they were grapes and I was making wine.  But as time passed that sense of gratitude faded, though never fully left me.

Over the following years, I noticed that I wasn’t feeling grateful until I was literally forced to—and usually that occurred when something bad happened.

To end this cycle, I started observing a “Mincha Moment”—a time when I would stop everything I was doing and take time to be grateful for all that I had.  I like the idea of setting up a time—I’ve been doing this at 2:30 pm every day for many years now (I don’t remember why I chose 2:30 pm, but I used to have an alarm on my running watch that went off—now I have Art Garfunkel singing “Grateful” on my iPhone). But you can pick any time that works for you.  However, if it’s not formalized, the time seems to slip away and another day goes by without thinking about everything you’re so blessed to have.

This idea of intentionality, of purposefully taking some moment of the day to think about all the things you are grateful for didn’t originate with me.  According to Jewish tradition, people are required to offer specific prayers called berakhot (blessings) 100 times a day.  From waking up in the morning and thanking God for returning our soul to us, to saying a prayer upon seeing a rainbow, berakhot create moments of spontaneous—and specific—gratitude.  In addition, Jews are called on to pray together as a community three times a day:  Morning—Shacharit, Afternoon—Mincha, and Evening—Maariv. Why is that? It seems like a big interruption to everyone’s life, no?

The problem of “later”

The way I figure it, a group of guys sat around thousands of years ago and decided that if people weren’t required to get together and formally acknowledge their gratitude, they’d never take the time to appreciate all that they have. Back then, people had oxen to move from one dusty place to another, dirt floors to sweep, vegetables to squeeze day after day at the local market. Today we spend time looking for an app that will find shoes to match our new handbag. Shoes or floors, it all adds up to the same thing—a drain on our time—so we don’t carve out extra time to be grateful. After all, we can be grateful later.

But I know that “later” we’re always too busy.  I mean sure we’re grateful at Thanksgiving—someone talks about how blessed we are to have the big turkey (or for vegans, the enormous tofu sculpture in the middle of the table) and we all nod in agreement. But as quickly as we think about how lucky we are, our brain moves on to something more immediately pressing: is there enough cranberry sauce, will that guy you met call after Thanksgiving dinner, why is your job such a drag?

Photo by Neils Photography via Flickr.comWe’re all like that—I mean the very concept has been immortalized in no less a pop culture icon than “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Ted had a heart attack and after surviving, tried to convince Mary and Lou that they had to be grateful for everything they had, every moment they had, all the little and big blessings that constantly happen around them.  Yet by the time Ted gets them to see things his way and was well enough to check out of the hospital, when they point out a spectacular sunset, his response: “Aww, saw it yesterday—see one, seen them all.”

So being grateful is really not so easy to do.

In every situation

You may be thinking: Sure,  it’s easy to feel grateful, to give thanks, when you see two horses running across a plain, or you’re relaxing in a pool holding hands with a great-looking hunk with a six-pack like Taye Diggs—but what about when you’re having a really lousy day, I mean, a really mud in the face, split pants, lost Word file, laid off, boyfriend dumps you, kind of day?  And even if it’s not that bad a day—maybe you just aren’t feeling great or grateful for that matter.

Just sit back wherever you are and look around.  Maybe you’re at work and you really don’t like it—do you have one friend at least, that you hang out with?  Then be grateful: Imagine what a drag it would be without him/her.  But maybe you’re out of work and thinking what is there to be grateful for?  Actually, a lot!  Maybe it’s that you have parents supporting you or a great circle of friends or a dog or cat or even goldfish! There’s always something that, if we didn’t have it—the ability to run, read, a great set of headphones—would make us sad.  Or maybe you just had a great meal with your family or you passed the Bar exam or your mammogram went just fine—take the time to be grateful—imagine if the situation had not played out that way!

At www.minchamoment.com we have a blog and 2- to 3-minute videos that have great music and visuals to remind us of all that we have.  And at our Mincha Moment Facebook page, you can add what you’re grateful for.  If 2:30 pm doesn’t work for you, then pick another time—but do it—every day!  Just remember the words of Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast: “In our daily life, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy.”

Dr. Debra Gonsher Vinik is the three-time, Emmy-award-winning head of Diva Communications, Inc., a programming and production company that specializes in documentaries which explore social justice issues from an interfaith perspective. She is currently working on a one-hour documentary, entitled Divine Prescription, scheduled to air on ABC beginning in January 2013. Divine Prescription examines some of the amazing people who, understanding the veracity of the oft quoted Talmud precept–“Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved the entire world,”–care for those who are sick but who have no resources to combat their illness. 

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