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Life / Personal

Gratitude—The Big and Small of it

Gratitude—The Big and Small of it

Many of us, myself included, use the words “thank you” as carelessly as “excuse me” or “gesundheit.” We tend to throw around “thanks” without necessarily giving it a thought. We say it at the Starbucks drive-thru, after opening a present, or when someone holds the door open for us. But I want to talk about gratitude, and I’m not entirely sure that thanks and gratitude are as synonymous as we might think.

To be fair, I try (at least some of the time) to be genuine and sincere when expressing thanks—even in the most trivial of circumstances. I’ll sometimes see people do a double-take when I do express genuine thanks. Sometimes the thank-yous that seem trivial to me, may not be to someone else.

Less ubiquitous than thanks, and assuredly far less automated, is gratitude. I think gratitude has both a macro and a micro aspect to it. My genuine gratitude towards someone could be macro to them, even though it seems micro to me.

In my estimation, micro gratitude is more closely related to the expression of thanks, but without the same impetus. For example, at this moment I’m very grateful to be on a plane pointed towards home and to my daughters who I haven’t seen in a week. The sensation of gratitude and its expression are very specific and intentional. (Even more so because I almost missed my flight.) I miss my girls. This plane is getting me back to them, and therefore I’m grateful on a number of levels. The micro aspect of gratitude is also the one I’m more frequently aware of primarily because many little things happen every day for which I should be grateful.

The macro side of gratitude is a bit more nebulous (which is probably one reason we are less frequently aware of it). Still on the topic of my girls—I’m grateful for them beyond words. But I’m not always mindful of that fact, especially on no-nap days when I long for the peace of early bedtimes.

Today, for example, has been quite frustrating, with airport shenanigans, delays, and a higher-than-normal amount of bureaucratic inefficiency. All of those things combined played into my earlier expression of thanks that I’m at least now headed in the right direction. As I arrived at my gate (the second one, which required two rounds of airport security) and my ire was rising, I met a woman who had been through that same security as well as four terminal changes to be on my flight. Her cheerful expression of relief at finding the right gate finally completely shamed my experience and returned my sense of perspective.

It’s a question of perspective, and true gratitude is a game-changer in that regard.

I believe it is impossible to be grateful and anxious at the same time. True gratitude tends to quickly dampen anger. If I’m being honest, and really spending some time focusing on the macro side of gratitude, things that often give me tunnel-vision (see also: stress) usually diminish in importance.

The great part about both the macro and micro sides of this is that when they’re combined, they usually give me ample opportunity to realign that perspective. I can be grateful I made my flight with just one terminal change (micro), I can be grateful for my kids in general (macro), and I can also be grateful for the reason FOR the flight at all, which was celebrating my fifteenth wedding anniversary. I’d call that a check in both macro AND micro columns.

The magnitude of those things makes my somewhat ridiculous morning gallivanting around the San Francisco airport seem quite unimportant in comparison.

Gratitude is certainly more prominent when there is an upcoming national holiday dedicated to it, as well as another one focused on gifts and giving, which also generates thankfulness (or not) for those gifts. However, during this busy season, I often find myself contemplating the nature of gratitude all year long in everyday life, rather than simply in conjunction with a holiday or even a season.

How often do I really focus on expressing gratitude? Not as an automated response to a barista, a delivery guy, or the customer service rep who fielded my call; but, as a moment when I focus on a person who did something that merited thanks, however small. If I’m being honest, I don’t do this as often as I should. I know folks who begin and/or end their days making a list of things they’re grateful for and I believe they are happier because of it.

Likewise, how often do I take a few steps back and try and take in the view of gratitude for the large-scale things present in my life that make it what it is? Again, the answer is far less often than I should. How is it that often the people I know with the most difficult situations are also the most grateful for what they have? Is it privilege that makes me ungrateful?

I’ll conclude by saying that I am very grateful for the opportunity to put thoughts out into the ether on this forum. If my words cause even one person to pause and consider something more deeply or in a different way, that is an honor (and humbling, but that’s another post entirely). So that’s macro. And here’s the micro: thank YOU for your time and your thoughts (please post them below). They’re two of the most valuable things you have, and I appreciate them. Thank you.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Aaron is an educator, artist, and pluviophile who lives in Kansas City with the love of his life and their two incredible girls.

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