Browsing recently at a Denver airport store on my way home to Orlando, I was greeted by the clerk. Exchanging pleasantries, I asked him how his day was going. “Counting the hours, ma’am. Just counting the hours.” “It can’t be that bad,” I replied. “I am working a fifteen hour shift in a newspaper stand in an airport, “ he said. “And this with a college degree. As I said, ‘Just counting the hours.”
Okay, so this young man was not living his dream. But all I could think of is that the clerk appeared to be the same age as a friend of mine who became a quadriplegic twenty years earlier as a result of a freak accident. “Be grateful for what you have,” I wanted to say to this total stranger. “Don’t count the hours; count your blessings.”
On Passover, we Jews celebrate the physical and spiritual redemption from slavery. Each year, we sing Dayanu, a song which lists the steps leading to our freedom. In it, we are reminded of our need—our responsibility—to be grateful for all G-d has given to us.
Yes, it is sometimes difficult to be grateful. College degrees and sometimes lead to menial job. Cars break down; toilet overflow; a bite into a hard candy results in a $3000 dollar dental bill. But as a dear friend said to me after I complained about a costly home repair, these are all First World problems.
In addition, in our highly commercial, secular world, it is sometimes difficult to be happy with just enough. We are bombarded with advertisements promising us happiness if only we purchase a new car, a new home, even a new brand of soap. We are exposed to all this noise on television, on billboards, on ever-targeted ads on the internet between our Facebook posts.
I am sure the Jews who escaped Egyptian slavery complained. Some of the kvetching is recorded in the Torah, but I can only imagine the grumblings that were not written down. “Manna that tastes like coconut cream pie again? For one night, can’t it taste like my mother’s matzoh ball soup?” Or: “Who put Moses in charge? We’ve been wandering this desert for forty years. The man can’t find his way out of a paper bag!”
The child of parents who were on different ends of the “cup half full”/cup half empty” continuum, I struggled as to whether my father’s rose colored view of the world was a better way to go than my mother’s practical but less than optimistic outlook. Whereas my father was content with his life, my mother often compared herself and our lives to others, and she saw the grass as greener in the other’s yard. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt. And also, in my eyes, the thief of gratitude.
When looking for property in Florida, Larry and I made the conscious decision to downsize. We chose a smaller home that, in line with most houses in the Sunshine State, had no basement and a fairly inaccessible, extremely hot attic. We purchased the home with all its furnishings in a community whose home owner’s association that took care of our lawn and shrubbery. As a result, we were able to divest ourselves of much of our belongings and start over. Once we unpacked—and gave another load of unneeded items to a local charity–we assured ourselves that we were never going back to having so much.
Despite my best intentions, however, I began to fall into my old habit of acquiring more than we needed. The search for that one last item to complete our new home—a new outdoor seating set, a water softener, updated lighting fixtures— was taking me away from where I wanted to be: grateful for what I had.
One day, while at a salon getting my hair cut, I saw a poster with the following affirmation: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” And somehow that quote from Melody Beattie was the kick in the pants I needed.
Researching studies in positive psychology, I learned that those who are habitually grateful are significantly happier—and even healthier— than those who are not. One recommended method to enhance these feelings is by maintaining a gratitude diary in which one records on a regular basis three to five things for which one is grateful.
Using a beautiful floral-covered journal a dear friend had given me as a going away gift, I started ‘counting my blessings’ each night before I went to bed. Some entries were major milestones: “I saw my granddaughter crawl for the first time!” Other day’s reflections were more mundane: “Larry and I laughed our way through a great ‘Big Bang Theory’ episode.” No matter what the magnitude, I was ending my day focusing on the positive.
In the process, I have turned the focus from how many material possessions I have to how much goodness I have in my life. “Collect moments, not things” says a Hindu expression. The journal gives me the opportunity to capture those moments: savoring an Upstate New York apple, reading a book to my granddaughter, sitting on our lanai and viewing the wildlife in our pond, appreciating one more day of good health.
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was thank you,” wrote Meister Eckhart, “that would suffice.” Or, in the word of the Passover seder, ‘Dayanu.’ Chag Sameah!