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.

A Prayer of Thanks

What is your family’s Thanksgiving tradition for giving thanks at the table?  Do the assembled family and friends bow their heads while one person says a prayer?  Do you have everyone hold hands in an unbroken chain while grace is said?  Do you go around the table and have everyone describe what he or she is thankful for this year?  Or do you dispense with the formalities and just dig in as soon as the turkey is carved?

As a moderately observant Jew, I come from a tradition where there is a blessing for everything.  Although the Hebrew prayers over different types of food were ingrained in me as a child, I did not begin saying an English language prayer over meals until after I got married and my wife started to encourage this.  I was delighted, but this meant that I had to come up with some brief, appropriate words to use for the occasion.

The blessing that I now use before we eat is pretty much the same on Thanksgiving as it is on any other day.  The only difference for a special occasion is that I might add a reference to my appreciation of particular individuals among us, particularly if we have been blessed by the presence of one or more honored guests.

My basic prayer goes something like this:  “Thank you, Lord, for the food we are about to receive and for the many gifts you have bestowed upon us.  Thank you for the blessings of our home, our health and our family.  Thank you for all your help at my job.  And thank you for all the work you do in our lives every day.  Amen.”

Admittedly, it’s a fairly plain vanilla prayer.  But I think it covers the important things.  Of course, if a particular family issue happens to be going on at the moment, I feel free to add a divine request for the complete recovery of a sick person (I still get an incredible kick when my wife refers to this by its Hebrew name, refu’ah shlemah), the safety of one who is away on a trip or the success of someone at school or work.

Among my favorite things about this prayer is the “innocuous factor.”  Over the many years that I have been saying this blessing (including in public), I have never heard anyone object to it on religious grounds.  I believe it reflects the gratitude that we all feel, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof.  Who isn’t grateful for having a roof over his or her head, food in his or her stomach, a loving family and meaningful work?  As one who recently suffered through a year of unemployment, this last one hits close to home for me.  “Establish the work of our hands for us — yes, establish the work of our hands.”  Ps. 90:17 (NIV)

I suppose an atheist might object to this blessing, but then any type of prayer at all might be offensive to one who prefers that I do not address the Lord.  There’s not much I can do about that.

True, some Christians might object that I make no reference to Jesus, but everyone is of course free to add the flavor of their religious preferences at the end.  All I ask is that those assembled remain respectfully silent for the 30 seconds or so that it takes me to pray over our food.  I have never experienced anyone doing otherwise.  Some dirty looks from fellow diners in restaurants, yes.  The occasional flummoxed server who brings over the iced tea at just the moment that I am praying and doesn’t quite know how to behave, sure.  There will always be those who will roll their eyes at the holy roller over there.  And there will always be those who believe that praying over the food is a quaint relic of the past that has little relevance today.

Thankfully, many of us realize that, in these difficult times, prayer arguably has more relevance than ever.  And fortunately, gratitude is a universal language that all of us can understand.

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Giving Thanks

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The struggles make me stronger
And the changes make me wise

—  Gary Allan, “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”

Tomorrow we head south to California’s Central Valley to spend the long holiday weekend with family.  It’s a triple dipper for us:  Not only Thanksgiving, but also Hanukkah and my father’s 80th birthday celebration.

I never know what to expect at these family events.  Both my sisters will be there.  My relationship with one of them consists of an occasional text.  The other one I haven’t had any contact with in six years.

If you imagine that I may be feeling some trepidation, you’re right.  I truly look forward to spending time with the clan and I just hope that the yelling and the arguments will be kept to a minimum.  I know, I’m dreaming.

Sigh.  Okay, on goes the smiley face.  And as I attempt to assume a positive attitude, this seems to be a good time to enumerate a few of the things for which I am thankful this year.  An exhaustive list would take a lifetime to compile.  But here are some of the things for which I am feeling grateful today:

1.  I am thankful for being blessed with a loving wife who inexplicably puts up with my nonsense, year in and year out.

2.  I am grateful for being surrounded by family every day, and particularly for the precious time I regularly spend with my niece, nephews and grandniece.

3.  I am grateful that I continue to be a beneficiary of the advice and wisdom of both my parents as they enter their eighth decade.

4.  I am grateful that, even in unemployment, we have been able to keep food in our bellies, shoes on our feet, a roof over our heads and gasoline in our tanks.  I am humbled to have lately been schooled in the economics of the extended family.

5.  I am grateful that I was fortunate enough to obtain a good education that has helped me to think critically and to understand our rapidly changing world.

6.  I am grateful to live in the information age.  And yes, I am thankful for my iPhone and my laptop.

7.  I am grateful that I have been spared all manner of suffering:  That I am not dying in a hospital somewhere, lonely in a nursing home, homeless and begging for nickels on a street corner or a soldier missing family while serving in the mountains of Afghanistan.

8.   I am grateful for the joy of music and sunsets and thick dictionaries and haiku and lemon iced tea and homemade soup.

9.   I am thankful for the opportunity to worship God as I see fit.

10. I am grateful for random acts of kindness, both in the giving and the receiving.  It is the encouraging word and the gentle touch that makes life worth living.

11.   I give thanks to all of you, my readers, for your encouragement and for helping to make this blog successful.

12.  I am grateful that I have the freedom to write this list and to share it with the world.

At this holiday season, please remember to share your many blessings with those who are not as fortunate as yourself.  Someone out there needs you.

With wishes for a joyful and safe Thanksgiving to all.

 

NaBloPoMo November 2013