Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Gratitude

Thank you, NIP
            No matter who you are, I owe you a debt of gratitude. At 37 years old, I now fully realize that there are very few things I can accomplish on my own. Our lives are so interdependent upon others, whether we choose to acknowledge this fact or not. The more I have turned toward this realization over the last few years, the more my life has flourished. Even everyday encounters have taken on such a rich texture simply because I am grateful for having the chance to experience them. This transition didn’t happen overnight, however; it has been a gradual growth of gratitude by constantly reminding myself all that I have to be grateful for—from family, friends, students, neighbors, anonymous readers of these letters and other strangers, to even simple moments when I revel in the fact that I am alive and feeling the sunshine on my skin as I breathe deeply and feel connected to all of life.

            For me, the first step toward true gratitude for my life and everyone and everything in it was discovering a powerful mantra from Zen Buddhism. I must tell myself these following three lines umpteen times per day:

Infinite gratitude to all things past
Infinite service to all things present
Infinite responsibility to all things future

The first is essential to this letter, and it may be the most crucial overall because it allows us to build a foundation—a place to start when it comes to making the necessary constructive changes in our lives. Being grateful to all things past implies acceptance to everything that has brought us to this very moment. Our mind has a tendency to pick and choose events/thoughts/actions in a way that shapes our everyday existential experience, but we miss the point if we don’t recognize that everything—whether we choose to acknowledge it or not—has shaped us. Good, bad, or indifferent, all of the moments of our lives when put into a cumulative perspective have fashioned the life we lead in the here and now. Being grateful for even those moments, thoughts, people, etc that have hurt us are important because we have (hopefully) learned something from them. I certainly have had my fair share of those in the first 37 years of my life, but the way I see them now is radically different from how I saw them in my youth.

            Take my parents’ divorce, for example. 25 years ago, it was a disaster in my life. I couldn’t appreciate the dynamics of adult relationships, let alone be grateful for the disintegration of my family. Now, though? I couldn’t be more grateful for my parents getting divorced because of the good it brought into their lives. Both of my parents have found someone with whom they can share their lives in a positive, rewarding way. Moreover, it has only allowed my family to grow to include more members. I feel the same exact way about Erin’s family as well. She also grew up in a divorced household, but it’s a blessing in the sense that we effectively have four sets of parents. Sure it can make the holidays challenging by having to go to so many houses, but I simply remind myself as soon as I cross whichever threshold that I am grateful to spend time with them.

            I am also especially grateful for being a teacher. Each year I meet new students and form new relationships, which, as I get older, seem to be the most important aspect of life/living (human relationships). Having a career where I get to “pay-it-forward” by extending toward students the love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience that has been shown to me throughout my life thus far is incredibly rewarding. Admittedly, I have had difficulty sustaining my love for teaching a few times this year, but in those moments it tended to be the peripheral hazards of the career (bureaucracy, politics, etc). What has and continues to sustain me, though, is the magic between the bells. Even while doing our mindful minute after the tardy bell, I find myself silently repeating “I am grateful for this moment” on the inhalation and “I am grateful for these students” on the exhalation. I cannot even begin to tell you how that positively impacts the tone and atmosphere of my instruction, NIP. Know that if you are one of my students—past or present—you have had an indelible impact on my life and the way I choose to live it. All of the students I have taught, whether they realize it or not, have been important to my maturation both as a teacher and a human being.

            The one for whom I am most grateful, though, is my beautiful wife, Erin. I routinely tell just about anyone who will listen that if it weren’t for Erin, I would not be who I am today (or, seeing we just finished Nietzsche in philosophy class this week, who I am becoming). She has been such a source of strength and motivation throughout our entire relationship, but especially since beginning this project of self-improvement nearly four years ago. Every day when I wake, I lie in bed and proceed through my gratitude mantra. This used to culminate in the final, simple line “I am grateful,” but in the last few months has transformed into “I am grateful for all of this bounty and beauty in my life.” More often than not, Erin’s face pops into my mind’s eye when I am reciting that line. I am so thankful for her presence in my life and our relationship in general that it’s quite difficult to put into words how much she means to me. Words—as they often do when trying to convey a powerful feeling or experience—break down and become meaningless; therefore, I do my best to show my gratitude for her and our marriage by simple actions: bringing her coffee when she wakes; giving her my undivided attention when she speaks; holding hands while we walk; making dinner for her; in short, loving her as best I can in each and every moment.

            I don’t remember how young I was the first time I heard someone tell me to count my blessings. All I know is that it took me far too long to heed that advice. By constantly reminding myself of the small gifts each new day brings, I find it much easier to weather the worst of life’s storms. It may take time for it to become habitual, but try to take a mental inventory of the moments for which you’re thankful throughout the day. In time even the most mundane things may become marvelous. And before you know it you’ll be staring at ant colonies scurrying in and out of a knothole in a tree, thinking about how grateful you are to have taken a random stroll outside on a beautiful, warm winter day while the sunlight warmed your skin just slightly yet was kept in equilibrium by the gentle breeze that cooled it.

Be grateful for all of it, NIP.

Thanks again for reading…

- Ryan   

1 comment:

  1. Although we have never met, I heard a lot about you when you and Erin started dating.. I was in the very first class she had at Bryan Elementary, and she was probably one of my favorite teachers. I would be forever grateful if you would please pass this message along to her, and give her my email address as well, I would love to catch up with her..
    -Hannah Storie