One of the strong memories from my childhood was Zena or Frank reminding us to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. They were constant in their gentle insistence that we appreciate what was being done for us.
On the wall of my bedroom I have an A4 page with the words, “Damien, what are you grateful for?” I deliberately placed this question there to remind me to never cease from being grateful. I am so lucky. I have great friends. I have good health. I have a ministry that gives me purpose and meaning. I get up most days with a spring in my step. I am gifted with an occasional sense of humour. I have a roof over my head, a lovely home to live in, good food (though I cook for myself at present) and every thing I need for a happy life.
More importantly I am loved and know I am loved. I get hugs – plenty of hugs. I have friends who have not given up on me and whose patience would go close to getting them a Nobel Prize. I have wonderful hobbies and am like a ‘pig in mud’ when walking or gardening. I have relatively simple needs; the news followed by ‘Spicks and Specks’ and then ‘Would I lie to you’ – and I chuckle away to my hearts content.
Zena and Frank planted a seed within me those many years ago that has led me to be aware of what I am grateful for. I am aware of how much people do for me. I appreciate it – I really do. I can remember when I taught at a school many years ago I was in charge of these huge school masses with almost two thousand people crowed into a tight and hot space. When the liturgy was over, the grounds staff would come in to stack the 2000 chairs and put them away. I made it a practice to stay behind and get my hands dirty – stacking chairs with them. It was my small ways of saying, “I appreciate all that you do for me!” Similarly I tried to nurture the practice of giving the grounds staff and office staff a small gift at the end of the year.
I appreciate the small things: rain on the roof, nut-grass that finally dies after four attempts, a good movie, a cold beer at the end of a long day, a good coffee in the early morning, my prayer space and the many people who look out for me.
I am getting better – slowly, at appreciating myself. I am beginning to be able to give myself a hug when I fail, a pat on the back when I have worked hard on a project and ‘done by best’ and when my loyalty, fidelity and hanging in there has helped someone doing it tough get through the hard times.
Saint Mary of the Cross Mackillop used to often quote the French Philosopher Jean Baptiste Massieu when he said, “Gratitude is the memory of the heart!” And don’t forget what the Little Prince says, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential, is invisible to the eye!” (The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery). When you couple this with the reflection by the Carmelite Sisters of Reno, “What you do with your heart affects the whole Universe” one can see the power of gratitude.
Gratitude is a heart skill. It needs to be learned, practiced often – doing it your way but doing it authentically and from your heart. In time, gratitude becomes part of you. It becomes a mindset and a heart set. Then, suddenly, you will notice you are more balanced in your life. You will notice that you are not as worried about trivial concerns. You will notice that are you are noticing beauty all around you. You will notice that are you growing in awe of the simple and the beautiful. You will notice that you value and cherish, hold lightly and hug more intensely.
This week, get out a journal or a piece of paper. Find yourself a quiet space and a quiet time and simply make a list of what you are grateful for. Then simply sit! Simply sit and allow all that you are grateful for to wrap arms of peace around your spirit.
Sadly, all too often in our world, we are seeing the opposite of gratitude: ego and entitlement. Too often I am seeing this in the young people I work with. And part of the blame (even though I hate that word blame) must be placed at the feet of we adults. We have this misguided sense that we ‘don’t want my children to experience the hardships I did’ – but we often grow and learn from hardship. We have this misguided sense that “I want my children to have what I did not have” and so we spoil, we smother, we focus on things and forget people and the heart.
In this space I have failed often. I can remember as a young teacher working my backside off for the students. Now there is nothing wrong with working hard and being generous. Sure, but I was turning myself inside out to ensure that students had a multiple of great experiences, the highest quality guest speakers, great food on camps, seamless travel organisation, colourful notes summarising the term’s work – I could go on. Now, while some of this was good – there were times when I went overboard. I almost did the exam for the students. Even during this time, the wisdom Damien whispered in my heart, “Whose needs are getting met here?”
When we are entitled life owes us a living. When we are entitled we don’t value the essentials – because our eyes are glued on the extravagant. When we are entitled a small beast grows inside of us wanting ‘more’ and ‘more’ and ‘more’ and that beast is NEVER satisfied. When we are entitled we fail to see the beauty right under our nose, in the simple things, in the true things, in the things that will truly hug our hearts and gift us with real happiness.
But don’t go working on ‘not being entitled’. Rather – practice mindfulness and practice gratitude – then the entitlement beast will become but a whisper and even the ever present ‘ego’ will lose its power.
- Once a month find yourself a quiet space and make a list – “What am I grateful for?”
- Once a month find yourself a quiet space and make a list – “Who am I grateful for?” Then, quietly sit with this list and allow it to hug you.
- Practice mindfulness – become aware of the beauty all around you and especially in the small and simple things – find YOUR way of doing this – a note stuck to your wall, an alarm on your phone that reminds you to stop and look and feel and wonder and appreciate.
- Say please – as simple and yet as powerful as that.
- Say thank you – as simple and yet as powerful as that – and teach your children to do the same.
- When leaving a restaurant or function where someone has ‘waited on you’ – if they are wearing a name badge quietly say, “Thank you Helen!”
- Find your sacred place – a beach, a forest, a part of the garden – wherever – and sit in silence and take in the beauty all around you – embrace the silence too.
- Make a list of the people in your life that you have not seen or spoken to or visited recently – make a diary entry to catch up with them with ‘no strings attached’ – simply a no agenda visit.
- Give yourself and your loved ones a hug – and allows your loved ones to give you one too – and don’t forget ‘hugs’ take a hundred different forms.
- Finally, remember Desiderata, “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars” – but a child of wonder and gratitude – not a spoiled entitled brat. Remember St Paul writing to the Ephesians 2:10 “You are God’s work of Art!”
Celebrate and appreciate that work of art – and all the other masterpieces that are the tapestry of your life!