The idea of gratitude is central to the idea of Thanksgiving Day, but Rabbi Chava Bahle thinks we could stand to make that sentiment a staple during the rest of the year, too. In particular, she suggests that turning gratitude into a regular practice can boost our resilience when dealing with life’s big challenges. But we also need to guard against gratitude becoming trite.
Gratitude feels like one of those concepts that’s way more complicated than it first appears. So how would you characterize gratitude?
For me, gratitude is a stance of conscious, humble appreciation. In Hebrew, the word is actually related to the concept of surrender, or letting go. And it carries an invitation for us to recognize that life is complicated and that it doesn’t always go the way we want. What happens when we experience an appreciation of something is it moves us to a place of recognition where we can see that sometimes good things happen and sometimes bad things happen. So inherent in the idea of gratitude is a comfort with uncertainty.
And so how do we translate that emotional experience of gratitude into practice?
Well, gratitude is one of those practices—like many spiritual and social practices—that works a lot better when it’s used more regularly and we don’t just pull it out when we need it. I can give you an example that comes from Rabbi Oprah Winfrey [laughs]. Every night, Oprah would keep a journal where she would write down five things she was grateful for. And it sounds a little silly, but I’ve done this, and after a few weeks of doing it, the consciousness of appreciation starts to suffuse more of your waking time. So you’re training the eyes to see and the heart to be open. And this really tills the ground for a more appreciative stance toward life when things are difficult. Because when something bad happens, being able to notice the tiny acts of goodness that are also happening in the midst of a crisis can help you get through it. And your ability to notice these things is strengthened by a regular practice of consciously developing an awareness of what is good about your life.
But being too aware of what’s good about your life can be a little dangerous, right? We see this all the time on social media, where people are posting updates about the things they’re “grateful” for. But often, it just comes off as bragging.
Ah. The “humble brag!” Yes, well, I think that brings us back to this idea of humility. So with the humble brag—which, let’s face it, most of us are guilty of, I’m guilty of it—the question we need to ask ourselves is: What is our motivation for the sharing? Is the purpose to reach out to the people we love so they can revel in our good news? Or is it infused with ego? And when I post—and I post a lot of stuff—I have to check that I’m not bringing that ego into it. Sometimes things slip through. But many times, it stops me from sharing things that are really better kept to myself.