On Gratitude and Striving, from Coast to Coast

Back when I was young and oblivious (as opposed to now, when I am old and oblivious) and living in the suburbs of New York City, I was friendly with a young couple who celebrated being bicoastal by prominently displaying a framed poster in their kitchen.  You’ve probably seen the one to which I refer:  One half is “New York” with an image of the Statue of Liberty, while the other half is “California” with an image of a palm tree.  Both images stand tall and proud, almost as if reaching out to each other in a gesture of friendship.

This July will mark twenty years since I defected from the Lady Liberty side to the palm tree side.  When I jumped ship, about all I really knew about living in California is that I’d have an easier time being a vegetarian here (Avodadoes!  Sourdough bread!  Tofu sandwiches!) and that there would be plenty of work for me in Silicon Valley’s tech industry.  I was mostly wrong on the first count and horribly, disastrously wrong on the second count.

Like many New Yorkers, I saw California as the golden land of opportunity, filled with sunshine and the chance to reinvent yourself into anything you wanted to be.  (Sadly, not so for most of us.)  I also had the idea that California would be more laid back than stodgy, hung-up New York.  This last one actually turned out to have some basis in fact.

Take the state mottoes of California and New York, for example.  California proudly displays “eureka” on its state shield, a Greek word proclaiming “I have found it!”  New York, on the other hand, chose “excelsior,” Latin for “ever upward.”  Thus, New York stands for constantly striving, while California believes it can relax because it has already arrived.  One might even generalize that New Yorkers constantly work toward achieving “more and better,” while laid-back Californians are satisfied and content with what they have.

With this in mind, I am forced to admit that you can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t take New York out of the boy.  As my wife is quick to point out, I always want more and am never fully satisfied with anything.  For this I do not apologize.  As Shakespeare famously put it, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Nevertheless, I am grateful for those who are perfectly satisfied with exactly what they have.  More opportunity for me!

This is not to say that I am ungrateful for the gifts that I have been given.  In prayer each day, I recognize how good God has been to me and I thank Him for His blessings.  Unlike many, I don’t believe that gratitude and striving are mutually exclusive.  I greatly appreciate what I have, but that doesn’t mean I am going to sit on it and say “oh, I don’t need any more.”

Growing up, I was taught that ingratitude was one of the worst sins of which a kid could be accused.  It was an ironclad rule that you must sincerely thank anyone who gave you anything, regardless of how little you thought of the gift.  This was supposed to be part of the socialization process, a rule that existed to enable you to be thought of as a “good kid” rather than a “spoiled rotten brat.”  I am so glad that no one ever tried to give me a rotting, stinky fish filled with  maggots, because I would have had to thank the giver for his or her incredible generosity.

These days, when I find myself on the other side of the dynamic, I try to stop and remind myself of how ridiculous it is to impose my own values on others.  For example, it seems I am always running into people who love to gripe about their jobs.  My knee jerk reaction is to think “how ungrateful!”  But then I stop and remember that just because I am so grateful for my own job doesn’t mean that I should expect others to feel similarly about theirs.  Half the time I bite my tongue to avoid encouraging them to quit and give me the opportunity that they would so willingly throw away.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

I feel the same way about those who seem to take a perverse joy in complaining about the shortcomings of their kids and how hard it is to put up with them.  Most of the time, I just smile rather than seem pathetic by admitting what I’d do for a kid of my own.  Sure, I feel as if they should be grateful for what they can’t see as a gift, but there I go again, imposing my own values on others.  It is wrong for me to charge them with ingratitude when I haven’t walked a mile in their moccasins.  In their place, I might very well feel the same way.

I have come to realize that tolerance is the key.  Don’t think I lack appreciation for what I have because I always strive for more, and I won’t fault you for lacking gratitude for your own gifts.


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