It isn’t just gratitude, but all the social virtues such as compassion, forgiveness, humility, justice, and kindness that are life-giving to the self and to others around you. The potential is there within each of us, but the seeds need to get planted by others.
Once in a while I am seized by a cleaning-out-closets-and-drawers frenzy, and so another one overtook me this past week. So I tackled two of my drawers in a large chest of drawers in the bedroom. (I did this because I could no longer even shove a bobby pin into either – if you even remember what a bobby pin is!) In these drawers, I discovered the old medical records from my dad’s last illness, old records of mine and my late husband’s, old photos, scarves that I don’t wear – you know, the usual detritus of a lifetime. And I also found an envelope addressed to my parents when they lived in Georgia in 1964. [See the lead photo and notice that the postage was 8 cents!] I set the letter aside until I had the time to read it, guessing that my mom had given it to me when she was also cleaning out drawers at some point or other. When I finally sat down to read it I was truly astonished. It went like this:
Dear Mom and Dad:
Actually, this is sort of an old-fashioned idea – a bride writing to her parents the “night before her wedding” – but then I’m sort-of an old-fashioned type girl.
I think so often parents and “children” make the mistake of never actually putting into words the things that should be said. So many things are just taken for granted and never really expressed. I said parents ULandUL children, but really it’s just the children who never express what should be said, because the parents speak every day and have been, in my case, for 20 years, by their actions and sacrifices of love. And so very seldom are they verbally thanked, and if so, not enough.
(I am trying not to be sentimental, but then … sentimentality isn’t always so bad. …)
I know that I can never thank you enough for all you’ve done for me … all you’ve given me: my life, a happy home, loving and understanding parents, ingrained values and principles, opportunity for future happiness and … the list could be endless. I think maybe most of all I thank you for the faith you have always had in me, which has enabled me to have faith in myself.
I don’t think anyone could want finer parents in the whole world. I just hope that I’m as wise and good a parent as you. I think you’re wonderful and I love you both very much.
Your loving daughter,
Well to my amazement, I wrote that … at age 20. I don’t remember writing it. But there it was. In ink, on paper, that had been carefully preserved in a matching envelope with my parents’ address on it sent to Thomasville, Georgia.
See, I have no trouble whatsoever admitting my past sins and shortcomings. In fact, like most of us, I’m haunted by “sins of my youth” and never really saw myself as a thoughtful, generous person. No, more of a selfish, competitive go-getter, with a driving sense of ambition whether at my university or church post. But still … here was concrete evidence that like all of us, I was … and am … a complex human being, with both good and bad all bundled up inside of me from the get-go.
So I readily acknowledge the bad, but the good – certainly in my youth – surprises me. Where did the good come from? Apparently the seeds were planted early in life – the seeds that I identified in my letter at age 20. “Ingrained values and principles … faith … in me which has enabled me to have faith in myself.”
My spiritual advisor and friend, Fr. Peter Creed, recently gave me a book titled Into the Magic Shop, written by James Doty, a professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford. [See the second photo below.] You’ll hear more about this book in the weeks ahead. But to the point here, Doty, who suffered in childhood from a very dysfunctional home life, met a woman by the name of Ruth when he was 12 years of age. And Ruth showed Doty kindness and planted seeds of a generous heart and faith in himself that enabled him to overcome all manner of hurdles across his life’s journey.
At one point, Doty develops a list of 10 virtues that he envisions as “opening the heart.” As a neuroscientist, Doty now sees the heart as intimately connected to an integrated brain function. He terms this list of virtues as “the alphabet of the heart.” Halfway down the list is the virtue of Gratitude. He writes, “Gratitude is the recognition of the blessing that your life is – even with all its pain and suffering. … Too often, especially in Western society, we look at each other and feel jealous or envious. Simply taking a few moments to have gratitude has a huge effect on your mental attitude. … You suddenly recognize how blessed you are.” Earlier in his work, Doty writes:
There is an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and depression in the world, particularly in the West. There is an impoverishment of spirit and of connection with one another. Studies show that … isolation and loneliness puts us at a greater risk for early disease and death than smoking. Authentic social connection has a profound effect on your mental health – it even exceeds the value of exercise and ideal body weight on your physical health. It makes you feel good. Social connection triggers the same reward centers in your brain that are triggered when people do drugs, or drink alcohol, or eat chocolate. In other words, we get sick alone, and we get well together. (p. 232)
It isn’t just gratitude then, but all the social virtues such as compassion, forgiveness, humility, justice, and kindness that are life-giving to the self and to others around you. The potential is there within each of us, but the seeds need to get planted by others who model kindness, generosity, and the rest of these social virtues. “Ruth” planted the seeds for Doty at age 12. Even though, in his ambitious striving over the years, those seeds became hidden under the debris of wrong goals, he recovered them because they were there all along.
I was very lucky … or blessed … because my parents planted those seeds in my childhood. And even though, like Doty, they got buried over my years of ambition, they were never lost. As Tom Hanks has famously said, now that I’ve “grown up” and matured, I’m really just a better version of myself – that self who wrote that letter so long ago. And it’s never too late for you and me to still plant those seeds in others. Never too late to “get well together.”