This last week has been a rough one for me. A death in the family. A flooded basement. A flat tire.
So today when I happened to look back at my Instagram post from Monday, I was struck by a word that I had included in the caption—grateful.
Really? Grateful? I felt skeptical.
Life of late has been shitty in both small and profound ways, but right there in the midst of it all I somehow launched this Instagram post with this untroubled caption:
Feeling grateful today. I was on the Little North Fork with my boys when I turned around and saw this—my eight-year-old watching the setting sun filter through the trees. I wish you could have seen it too.
My post wasn't anything out of the ordinary. I saw something. It made me happy. I took a photo then posted it. Classic Instagram.
But the sentiment and timing, in retrospect, seems clumsy, even disingenuous. Was it a cunning cover up for what I was really feeling? Or worse, was it false humility, the most devious kind of self-promotion?
But as I kept looking at the post, something happened.
I took the proverbial step back. I reminded myself of my tendency to overthink and obsess. And then I found myself back in the woods where I took that photo. I returned again to that moment in the half-light of the canyon. I caught my son staring up at the sunlight, mesmerized. All of it came back to me. And something else came back too—gratitude.
That’s how gratitude often works. It visits us when don't expect it or deserve it.
Often, we miss out on gratitude altogether because we are in the habit of noticing everything that's wrong in a situation, not what’s right. We notice what isn't working. We notice how unlucky we think we are or what we lack.
This, of course, is in-gratitude. I know it well.
Ingratitude is easy and sometimes in the short-term it even feels good, so it becomes our default mindset.
Have you ever driven for a while and suddenly realized that you weren't paying attention? You turn, stop, and navigate without thinking, entirely on auto-pilot. That's what ingratitude is like. It puts us in a mode that makes us oblivious to what's happening around us.
We miss out on gratitude because we don’t pay attention, or more accurately, we pay attention to the wrong things. Gratitude requires self-reflection, looking inward and rearranging the mental furniture.
"Gratitude requires self-reflection, looking inward and rearranging the mental furniture"
We all have blind spots, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves. We avoid looking inward because it’s difficult and uncomfortable. When we do it, we are so out of practice, we don’t do it well.
The other day, the day of the photo in question, I was in the need of an antidote. That's why I took my boys camping. It was an early Father’s Day present to myself (that’s what I called it). It was also, quite consciously and obviously, my attempt to turn the page on a bad week.
I left home with nearly all of my favorite things: My fishing rod, my boys, my dog, a generous supply of Rainier beer. My destination was one of my most reliable escapes: The Little North Fork. Aside from my wife, who had commitments in town and couldn't join us, I had everything in the world that I needed.
I wasn't sorting through my emotions, though. I was running from them. In fact, I packed up and went camping explicitly to avoid thinking, which is exactly my point—I have blind spots, lots of them, and so do you.
I can see now that what I needed most was introspection not escape. My escape-therapy was self-sabotaging my odds of moving forward and getting my mind right.
True gratitude requires full awareness of life’s difficulties. It requires flooded basements and flat tires and standing on a hill in South Dakota at a military cemetery listening to a man play taps as your favorite uncle is buried.
Gratitude requires shit like that.
Gratitude is not blindly pretending that everything is good, nor is it wallowing in despair. We can’t feign gratitude by soldiering on and telling ourselves to “count our blessings.” This is disingenuous—a framed needle point on our grandmother’s kitchen wall and nothing more.
If the world is hard and painful and we cover it up by telling ourselves to “be grateful for what we have” we’re living in denial, or resignation, or worse, thinly veiled hopelessness.
Acknowledging the difficulties of life, in fact, heightens the possibility of gratitude, allowing us to realize that life has textures that are both good and bad, beautiful and frightening.
"Acknowledging the difficulties of life, in fact, heightens the possibility of gratitude, allowing us to realize that life has textures that are both good and bad, beautiful and frightening"
When we think this way, we accept the truism that we cannot control of everything. We admit that we can’t do everything on our own. We let go.
But letting go is hard. It feels like chaos, which fires up our anxiety. Chaos is frightening. Chaos is the yin to the yang of control. Gratitude is found on the razor edge between both. It arises when we find a balance between chaos and control and walk the thin swirling line between them.
My basement is still wrecked. I'm still relying on a spare tire. I still miss my uncle and always will.
All of this is just as true today as it was a few days ago when I pulled into the campsite with my boys and my dog and my fly rod and my cooler of beer. I was on the run from hardship but my unconscious mind was on the lookout for meaning.
That's how the mind works. It was seeking a ray of light—something helpful and valuable—and it found one, literarily and figuratively. It happened despite me. I was lucky. It doesn't always work that way. This time it did.
I read somewhere that it isn't joy that makes us grateful. It’s gratitude that makes us joyful. I'm usually not one for pithy quotes like this one, but I can't deny the truth of my experience—I went to the woods to feel better, and it worked. But it didn't work because going to the woods made me happy; it worked because going to the woods opened a door to gratitude.
My gratitude doesn’t mean that I’m virtuous or humble. It doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered contemplation or mindfulness or some sort of mystical Zen peace. Nor does it mean that I’ll always be able to find meaning in the universe or have time to take a photo of the rare moment when meaning arrives.
The hardships of the previous week made my small sliver of gratitude all the more potent. I can see that now. My introspection came accidentally at first, but it came nonetheless. I stumbled upon a powerful moment that triggered awe, joy, optimism, and humility. And finally, gratitude.
Gratitude is a worthy virtue. Like other virtues, it rises up once in a while as a way of reminding us of our potential.