Saturday, 28 February 2015

A year of prayer: Reflections on prayers of gratitude

What is enough?

How does choice actually diminish my gratitude?

How does busyness play a role?

Over the past month, as I've attempted to be mindful and breathe in each moment as a gift, I've found my mind alive with ideas and wonderings. 

I find gratitude challenging. This might be an understatement. If I am to be very honest, I often find myself wanting more, making comparisons, wanting not this, but that (a "that" which is only a millimetre over from "this"), and falling victim to the socially acceptable norm of busyness, even when I'm not really busy at all. 

A friend of mine posted this article on fb today which struck a chord for me. It was a reminder that I have far far far more than I need. Yes, it can be challenging to make ends meet and to get all the bills paid. Yes, we are in student loan debt up to our ... not sure what body part makes sense here. But we have a place in which to live. We have family and friends. We have employment (even if more employment would be helpful). We have eaten every day this month. We have clean water to drink and bathe in. We have furniture and books and I'm typing on a computer that is connected to the internet. Yes, it's true that we have far less than many people, but it's also true that we have vastly more than most people. So why oh why do I struggle with gratitude!? 

Each day as I walked to work, I tried to breathe in and give thanks for the moment, for life. And that was and is, I think, a very good thing to do. It helps to orient me and it does make me more grateful, it really does. Yet, one day as I was walking I wondered whether or not I had the right kind of toque. Or maybe it was the scarf. Either way I was distracted and suddenly recalled a psych experiment that I learned about in my first-year psych class called the "two-string problem."  In the two-string problem a person is placed in a room and he has a chair and a pair of pliers. Two strings hang from the ceiling and he needs to bind them together with only the supplies he has in the room. The strings are too far apart to be able to reach both at the same time. When our prof gave us this problem, very few people were able to come up with a solution, we simply didn't have the right stuff at hand, or so we thought. The challenge we faced was figuring out a way to use the pliers in a novel way -- using them as a weight for a pendulum.

The two-string problem is an example of the theory of functional fixedness. Functional fixedness "concerns the solution of object-use problems. The basic idea is that when the usual way of using an object is emphasised, it will be far more difficult for a person to use that object in a novel manner." This, it strikes me, is part of my difficulty with both gratitude and enough. Not to throw all the blame on consumer culture or media, but just watching a few commercials is enough to offer some evidence that functional fixedness is beneficial to anyone trying to sell something. The more specific the usage, the more variety of items we need. And even though there are a large number of websites throwing out every "life-hack," one can imagine (using everyday items for other purposes to reduce cost/waste), I still generally think that I need a hammer to go with my nail. Which, is actually not true at all. There are dozens of things that can take the place of a hammer. 

And I do think that all this variety gets in the way of gratitude. Somehow I have come to believe that I need certain (rather specific) items to achieve certain goals. If I don't have those items, I sense that I am lacking something and thus feel less grateful. I suspect that the less I have and the more I stretch myself to simply use what I've got with imagination, the more grateful I am likely to be.

And finally, busyness. Another friend highlighted this article on busyness today. One of the points of the article is that many of us simply default to "busy," as our response when people ask us how we're doing, laying it out as a badge of honour, rather than the sickness that it actually is. I'm seriously guilty of this one. Even on days that are relatively leisurely, if I'm asked how my day is going, I'm likely to respond with "busy." It's like our contemporary version of "fine." When I was growing up, "fine," was a socially acceptable throw-away response. It was a response that carried a bit of stoicism with it. It meant I was good and didn't need help. It was, more often than not, a lie. While "busy," is also a socially acceptable throw-away response, that is also often a lie, it has different connotations. It seems to  indicate that I am indispensable (which I am not), that others are stretching me to my limits (which may or may not be true), that my life is filled with burdens (indicated by the sigh that accompanies my response), and that ultimately, you should feel sorry for me, and be awed by my ability to survive the insanity that is my life. 

I'm not saying that we should go back to using the word "fine," in all our casual discourse. Nor am I saying that responding with "busy," is always wrong. I suspect there are a few people who can claim that response with a good deal of integrity. But I'm simply wondering if my use of "busy," actually gets in the way of living out of gratitude. Maybe my life is busy, and I need to make some changes (busyness for many of us is quite often chosen) in order to live a life of gratitude, letting go of striving and excess. Or maybe the label "busy," doesn't even really apply and it simply masks the beauty that's already present.

So my month of offering prayers of gratitude has led me to a few convictions. One, that I need to pay attention to what I actually require to live a life of enough. Two, that seeking out creative ways to use what's right in front of me will likely make me far more grateful since I'll always have what I need! And three, when people ask me how my day or week has been, I'm being given a chance to reflect and answer honestly. I suspect that if I take advantage of those brief moments to reflect, the response might sound far more like "rich," or "full," or "beautiful," rather than "busy."

1 comment:

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