How many times have you thought: “I can’t believe this.”
I’m not talking about the mutter of, “I can’t believe this s***” when you miss the subway 5 minutes before you’re supposed to be at work. Or, a shriek of, “I honestly can’t believe this” when you see that your Amazon order hasn’t shipped yet.
I mean the slow whisper of disbelief; the “I cannot believe this,” because you actually can’t understand how the world works in such a beautiful, weird way.
For me, I usually feel it strongest in the morning, when the sky is turning from black to a deep blue to that rosy pink tint. If I’m lucky enough to see this daily metamorphosis, it leaves me humbled at the largeness of the world, and grateful that I am one being still in it.
You might be thinking that’s a word only reserved for priests in your hometown, crunchy yoga instructors in TriBeca, or Tim Tebow. But, feeling and recognizing gratefulness allows you to put your life in perspective (was your Lyft driver really that bad?), and live in the here-and-now.
Flight to Honolulu, January 2014
My flight was supposed to leave late on a January morning, but the weather had other plans in store. An unexpected snowstorm was mauling the Tri-State area — again — and I was currently sitting on the plane in purgatory.
I had just survived the Polar Vortex, and it was only fair that my last day in the Northeast for a few months was marked by another blizzard. As I stared out the plane window, I couldn’t believe my luck; the freezing cold was delaying my trek through Paradise. It was so close, I could nearly feel the sun warming my translucent skin.
I only had to get out of New York first.
But, I wasn’t the only one who was feeling constrained — imagine the buzz in the air on a flight to Hawaii in the dead of winter. So, I’m sure you can also imagine how taken aback I was when my seatmate turned to me, and started a conversation (who does that nowadays?).
“Well, at least we’re getting out of this snow, right?”
The hint of happiness in her voice was shocking — blinding in fact, like when the sun somehow wakes you up on a Saturday morning. In that moment, I didn’t want to be bothered. But, out of curiosity I took out my headphones, and answered her.
I found out that her name is Shirley. She was born on the island of Oahu, Hawaii and has lived there for her whole life. You could tell that the wrinkles on her face and hands developed from a mixture of old age, and growing up in a place where the sun was soaked up like water.
We sat next to each other for the entire eleven-hour flight from New York to Honolulu, and honestly, Shirley taught me more about life and gratitude and genuine happiness than any experience I’ve ever had.
When I think about it now, Shirley’s thankful demeanor was most surprising to me. It didn’t matter if it was for the extra macadamia nuts she received, or the trip across Europe that she just took with her daughter and son-in-law — her words were always laced with an undercurrent of gratitude.
And honestly, it scared me. It made me nervous when I thought about how grateful she was. Did I ever feel that way? Did I ever take the time to truly appreciate all that I had in life?
Call me crazy, but I think that because Shirley was so unrestrained in her thankfulness, it brought her more positive experiences. It opened other people up, out of the hard, humdrum of their everyday.
For example, I specifically remember during the middle of the flight Shirley excused herself from our conversation to use the restroom. When she returned, she had a handful of snacks all for me. Of course, they were Hawaiian delicacies like macadamia nuts and fruit (Hawaiian Airlines huh?!), and she insisted that I try each one of them. Silly I know, but I felt special that Shirley — my new 80 year old friend — had thought of me.
Soon, the flight attendant hurried to our row, and asked Shirley if she would like any more snacks, anything at all. She gently touched his arm, and thanked him for everything that he’s done. It was one of the most sincere thank you’s that I had ever witnessed.
All for in-flight snacks. Go figure.
Although Shirley will probably never know it, her demeanor shaped my entire trip, and my life afterwards. I began to realize how truly lucky I was, how lucky we all are. Sometimes, it just takes that one person, that one story, to help you view the world in a different light.
Yet, I don’t think that this feeling of gratefulness comes natural to us humans (or New Yorkers, for that matter). Like so many others, I was, and still am, striving for the Next Best Thing. Once I accomplish something, I start observing my new landscape for the next trophy to add to my shelf.
Of course, this nagging sense of under-accomplishment often propels me forward, yet it is also makes it difficult to keep perspective on a situation. I think that we often forget to stop and take a look around to realize how far we’ve come.
To be grateful.
So, I started to keep a gratitude journal to help me get in this “gratefulness” mindset. I first did it in the pre-Work era, when my daily routine consisted of waking up without an alarm, going for a run, and making extravagant breakfasts in the late afternoon hours. Yet, even though it didn’t really need it, I still found myself looking forward to this new morning ritual.
I liked how simple it was. Although I am already a Morning Person, this activity allowed me a few extra minutes in that hazy state between dreams and reality, when you feel like anything is possible.
I would reach for my journal, half squinting with sleep, and write down the first three grateful thoughts that came to mind. Some days, they would be as profound as “I am grateful that my values are different than the Kardashians,” and some days as simple as “the weather!!”. Profound.
Yet, keeping a gratitude journal was difficult for me to sustain when my morning routine changed from cooking late-morning breakfasts, to attending early-morning meetings. I woke up when the sky was still its deepest black — my eyes weren’t yet accustomed to staying open for those dreary colors.
I talked myself out of writing down my three grateful thoughts because I was too busy. I was too tired. I had to go, go, go since no one else was going to slow down. I could think of these “grateful thoughts” on the subway, when I had time.
But, there never was any time.
There wouldn’t be any time, unless I made sure of it. I had to cut out moments, make plans, write it in my calendar. I had to chisel away at the “busy-ness” in order to think. Once I realized that no one else would stop — that I wouldn’t stop — unless I forced myself to, I got back into my gratitude journal.
I bought a colorful, new notebook and kept it on my bed stand. I changed my routine, and left myself five minutes before bed to reflect on my day instead, and note down what I was grateful for. And you know, I started to look forward to my nightly ritual.
My gratitude journal helped keep everything in perspective. Whenever my day was so shitty I just couldn’t fathom setting another morning alarm for 5:45 am, I remembered certain small moments that made it all okay.
And sometimes, that’s really all that matters.