Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Intersection

Just like Stevie Wonder sang, "Isn't she lovely?"
What’s going on, NIP?

            I don’t know about you, but my life has been rather chaotic and hectic over the last month. And yet even in the midst of all this craziness, I still find plenty of time to reflect upon how lucky I am. In fact, I may go so far as to say that I am the luckiest person alive. I know that is simply my opinion and nothing that can be quantified, yet that doesn’t detract from the way I feel and perceive myself in relation to life at this point. And while there may be a ton of reasons for why I feel this way, chief among them is my beautiful wife Erin who is pictured above.

            This past Tuesday Erin and I decided to take the day off from work at the last moment and celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary. We enjoyed a leisurely morning of reading and drinking coffee, then—dressed in our “Just”/”Married” matching T-shirts from our Sandals wedding in the Bahamas—headed out to Flatwoods Park to walk the seven mile loop trail that is situated in the middle of the Lower Hillsborough Wilderness Preserve, a gorgeous tract of land that sprawls over 5,600 acres. It was a perfect day in terms of weather, and after our two hour hike we went to a local eatery that we have wanted to try for some time now. Even while there, we took nearly two hours to enjoy our lunch as we sat outside on the patio in the shade. We came home in the middle of the afternoon to watch Netflix, and before bed I wrote about my five favorite moments from the day in my gratitude journal.

            The gratitude journal is an idea that I got from a book I read not long ago, The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Lookingon the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan (I highly recommend it). The gist of the book is that Kaplan makes a New Year’s resolution to try and become more grateful for all that she has rather than focusing on what she didn’t have. Written over the course of a year, each chapter takes place over the duration of a single month with a specific focus on how to incorporate gratitude into her daily life. She has interesting conversations with many learned people in various fields, often citing data from their research on how being more grateful is linked to better well-being and other physical and mental health outcomes. The first step she begins with is the gratitude journal, which I have been keeping since the day before I wrote the last letter on humility. Though this isn’t something new to me (I kept a running log for about a year of a similar journal called “What Went Well,” which is reflective strategy promoted in Martin Seligman’s excellent book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being), I have enjoyed the exercise because it has me savoring the experiences for which I have been grateful each day; not only do I enjoy them in the moment—something I have been prone to doing for the last couple of years—but a second time upon reflection at the end of the day prior to going to bed. It’s a great way to end the day on a positive note, and cultivating gratitude certainly makes inroads to building a more positive outlook in general over the long run.

            And yet all this conscious reflecting on gratitude has brought about an unintended conundrum of sorts, a real chicken-or-the-egg type question: namely, am I a becoming more humble because I am cultivating gratitude, or am I becoming more grateful because I am cultivating humility? I’ve thought about it a lot since writing the last letter, and all I can say for sure at this point is that these two are intricately linked through a virtuous cycle of reciprocity. One leads to the other, for sure, and so I don’t think it matters in the end, but I know for me personally it began with gratitude. However one comes to this intersection between gratitude and humility, each of us will have been altered for the better by the time we get here. The best part is that there is really no need to focus on one over the other because the symbiotic nature of the two promotes a flowering of both virtues.

But back to the beginning of my letter…I feel like the luckiest guy alive, and it definitely begins and ends with Erin. Radiating outward from that spoke of love, though, are innumerable simple things and moments for which I am grateful each day. And the more time has passed, the more I contemplate how fortunate I am to experience even any single one of them, let alone a plurality of phenomena. Thinking about this, I believe, brought me to my knees in a metaphorical sense because it helped me realize that all of this is conferred without being asked. It is just there. Or, more precisely, just here. It’s right now. It’s everything within your field of senses in this very moment. It is the awareness itself. And whatever term we’d like to attach to this consciousness, sentience, or what have you, it is the act of bearing witness to life that brings us to this intersection of gratitude and humility. By being thankful and appreciative for all that we have been given, this also brings with it a sense of abundance, generosity, and humility. It would only make sense that if we have been given so much that we have a duty to share with others. As far as I can figure out, I haven’t done anything special to earn the air that I breathe, the colors I see, the birdsong I hear, the flowers I smell, the warmth I detect, or anything else that arises in this most essential awareness. But I know others have something to do with it, of that much I am certain.

I know I am getting a bit abstract at this point, NIP, and I can’t help but be philosophical about this because of all the reading and thinking in which I’ve been engaged as of late. So, let me provide you with some real life examples from my journal. I’ve read through them before writing this letter in the hopes a few examples would get to the heart of what I am trying to convey with this letter—that at the intersection of gratitude and humility, at the nexus of exchange between the self and the other, is the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive. Here are just a few of the lines from my log that I think made me feel that way the most in the moment when they happened:

Grateful for the light rain and feeling of mist hitting my skin during my morning run.

Grateful to go for a walk after school and feel the breeze and sunshine.

Grateful for the orange-pink hue on the clouds early this morning.

Grateful for the sight of a mockingbird landing on the stop sign in the cold winds.

Grateful to watch “sky television” for several minutes and enjoy passing clouds.

Grateful to support my mentees and help them through difficult times.

Grateful to connect with a student and have a meaningful conversation about life.

Grateful to take a stand for something because it’s the right thing to do.

Grateful to meet new people and deepen relationships with others.

Grateful for the support of so many others in my life—from Erin to fellow mentors.

Grateful to have made a delicious meal for my beautiful wife Erin.

Grateful for a wonderful wife who makes me pancakes breakfasts upon request.

Grateful to have the time to share simple moments with Erin today.

Grateful to be married to an incredible woman for nine years today!

Grateful to have been given another day, especially to spend with my wife.

            Though that’s only a small sampling of what I have written over the past month—I jot down at least 5 every night—I noticed that these entries revolve largely around three areas of my life: my solo interactions with the natural world; the moments that pertain to giving help to, or receiving it from, others; my interactions with the love of my life. I cannot say that I gravitate toward these moments/memories each night consciously, but they clearly cropped up when I reviewed what I have written over the last 35 days. Regardless of subconscious bias or intent, when I looked back over them they only made me smile again, many of them reproducing not only the moment in my mind, but the feelings of happiness, contentment, and awe that I felt then too.

But now it’s your turn, NIP. 

If you’ve read this far, then I hope you take up this challenge…write your own gratitude journal. To be consciously and constantly aware of even some of people, moments, or things for whom or which you have to be grateful, you’ll quickly find yourself heading toward that intersection that I find myself at now. Who knows? Perhaps you’re already there or have even moved beyond it at this point in your life. All that I have figured out up to this moment is that gratitude and humility are inextricably bound. I don’t think the question about which comes first really matters so long as we arrive at this juncture while we sojourn in this life. Because when we arrive at this intersection, we see that the near limitless possibilities only expand toward the horizon in every direction. I don’t know where to go from here, but so long as I keep these two complementary virtues in my head and heart at all times, I have faith that I’ll never get lost.

As always, NIP, I am grateful for and humbled by your taking an interest in my journey.

Thanks for walking the path with me,

-        - Ryan

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