The Trouble with Gratitude

I’m rushing down the street, despite the pleasant weather and flowers blooming. No one else is on the street—I live in a peaceful, quiet, small city, yet I’m hurrying and stressed; I have somewhere to go.

And then I see the old man. He suddenly appears at the end of the block, turns the corner, inches forward as he leans his weight on his walker, lifting one leg slowly, slowly, then the other. My face softens, I immediately slow down, embarrassed by my hurrying.

A rush of thoughts and emotions flood me: Oh, look at that man. Walking so slowly, he can barely move, while I’m practically running down the block. I should slow down. I should be grateful. After all, I’m healthy. My legs are working perfectly fine, well enough to get me where I’m going, and fast.

But wait a minute. Am I really being grateful if what I’m thinking is, “Boy, am I glad I’m not that guy”? If, instead of appreciating my miraculously functioning body, and maybe cultivating some compassion for the stranger before me, I’m actually feeling pity for the poor man, shame at my energetic strides, and embarrassment at how hurried I must have appeared?

This was not the first time I’ve had trouble with gratitude. In fact, I’ve tried and “failed” at gratitude many times.

Here’s the problem: When I start to contemplate all the things I'm genuinely grateful for, I immediately fear they'll disappear. Because one day I will be that old person walking down the street. These legs won't always work so well. One day I'll lose all the wonderful things and people I love. Ouch. No wonder I’m covering up that fear with pity and shame—reality is too terrifying to admit.

To make matters worse, I’m just a tad superstitious that acknowledging the good in my life will somehow jinx it and bring me bad luck. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s true.

And then another thing: How do you say “thank you” for good things that came to you mostly by chance? Was this part of the universe’s plan for me, and if so, what kind of universe randomly hands out good things to some people and horrible things to others? Not the kind of universe I want to bow to in gratitude.

But maybe that’s part of the point. If everything is all pretty much random, impermanent, and potentially terrifying, then why not take a moment to be grateful? What’s the harm? I can slow down, feel my muscles, my feet on the ground, the slight breeze, the warm air. Being mindful in this way doesn’t make the challenges of gratitude go away, but it’s still better than not being mindful at all. Right?

I’ve replayed that moment on the sidewalk many times in my head. Who was that man, and where is he now? Of course, I have no idea. What I do know is that, for a moment, my racing thoughts were interrupted by the presence of another. And even if I felt pity at first, what followed from that was an invitation for compassion, for both him and myself. We are both human, occupying different points on the spectrum of life, but ultimately connected by our shared existence in these fragile, temporary bodies.

So, thank you, universe, for a random encounter that allowed me to step outside my own story into that of another. Thank you for the chance to contemplate the miracle of the body and how quickly it changes. Here I am. And there is that man. Moving through this glorious earth in our very different, beautiful bodies. Both changing, both knowing it will all come to an end. What luck that we are here, even just for a moment. Breathing, walking, passing each other by.

Hila Ratzabi