Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Message of Thanks-giving


One of the first personal development or “self-help” books I ever read was Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff by Richard Carlson. One of Carlson’s messages that always stuck with me was to be grateful in our high moments and graceful in our low moments. It made a lot of sense to me for a long time.

I have come to believe something different: we can be grateful in all of our moments. God is always sending us one of two things: happiness and learning. Sometimes, out of nowhere, a feeling of ineffable joy sweeps over us: we don’t know where it has come from; it is just there; all we can do is feel it. Thinking about it too much dispels it. At other times, we feel sad, or depressed, or anxious, or insecure, or afraid. If we try to deny these emotions, we become half-people, the living dead. Many of us are dissipating our vitality trying to accomplish the impossible: to live within only a small subset of the range of human emotions.

If we can choose, instead, to recognize our holistic presence as human beings, and embrace the entire range of what we feel, we will live a much healthier life. Ironically, we will also experience much more happiness. Yes, that’s what I’m saying: by allowing ourselves to feel what many refer to as “negative” emotions, we will experience much more joy in our lives.

Why? Because it’s not our emotions that cause problems, but our attachment to them. When we can sit with any emotion that we feel without attaching to it, we can understand what it has shown up to teach us, and then move forward toward our higher life goals – which may be to express our love for others daily, or to seek truth, or to be kind and present toward our loved ones, or to continually strive to be the person we want to become. The emotion – regardless of whether you label it “positive” or “negative” – can be either an obstacle or a traveling companion on your journey toward the life you have imagined. It is always your choice.

Spinoza sagely remarked: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering once we form a clear and precise picture of it.” When you sit with any emotion – whether it is anxiety, stress, fear, jealousy or envy; or elation, strength, certainty or courage – long enough to reap the lesson it has shown up to provide, yet not so long that you become the emotion (and subservient to its capricious dictates) you prevent it from determining the direction of your life, like the Wizard of Oz behind the magic curtain. In the end the diminutive figure calling the shots was revealed by the simple act of the least likely candidate, Toto, pulling back the curtain. Similarly, the key to your continually and seamlessly moving forward on your journey, day after day, is to just pull back the curtain, embrace what is truly within you in that moment, and then continue on your path – whether that means treading cheerfully down the yellow-brick road or stepping outside its confines and whacking through the bush toward another destination of your choosing.

Our collective road has taken us to where we are today: Thanksgiving. Our nation’s day of appreciation. It is a confusing holiday. Are we to be thankful for our loved ones, our friends, our careers, the little things in life we take for granted, or to Native Americans for generously showing the European settlers how to till the land? In its essence, this holiday is a homage to the generosity of Native Americans before they were unceremoniously decimated and relegated to arid, inferior land by the European settlers.

The long relationship between the Native Americans and European-Americans – from its beginnings to the present day – is bittersweet. Malcolm X, in a speech at Harvard Law School, shared his take on the ‘discovery’ of America by a white explorer who never even landed on U.S. soil:

Here’s a man who discovered absolutely nothing…He was looking for India and made a mistake. He thought that he had discovered India and called those people Indians, after the word indigo, a Latin word which means blue-black…Then Columbus landed on this island, San Salvador, and told the people, “I have discovered you in the name of the Queen of Spain,” which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How can you discover a human being? Somebody’s about to have dinner and you intrude, and he says to you – he’s polite enough to say – “Look, come in and partake of my meal. Sit down and share what we have; it’s not much, but we’ll share it with you.” And then you stand up and say, “I discover you! You are now discovered, you are Indian.” They must have looked at each other wondering, like, where did this fool come from.

There has been a lot of confusion, unnecessary belligerence and cruelty in our nation’s history. Does this mean we should not be proud of who we are? I don’t think so. It means that, in the same way that we can be honest with ourselves in acknowledging any emotion we feel and then using it as a springboard to move toward something greater, we can do the same with how we feel about our past, including its most sordid periods. We can love every aspect of ourselves – as human beings, as a community, as a nation, and, yes, as a world – because each is a part of who we are. To deny any part would be to deny the whole.

Yet as we embrace our past we can simultaneously learn from any part of it that is no longer aligned with who we want to become. By recognizing both what has come before us and the true characteristics of who we are, right now – including our collective emphasis on work, money, power and self-gain, often at the expense of love, compassion and community; and our new social norms of uber-rapid communication through which we are over-connecting and under-relating to each other – we can prevent the characteristics of our culture that no longer fit with who we want to become from continuing to propel us on the yellow-brick road toward a Pleasantville where the capacity to feel is absent. We can make other, less conventional choices about where we are going – as human beings, as a community, as a nation and as an increasingly interdependent world.

So on this special day, let’s be thankful for every part of our past, of who we are. Let’s recognize every emotion that we feel and every event that has transpired – in our personal lives and in our collective history – as a signpost that, if we are only willing to slow down from our busy lives enough to read, will help each of us to find the right path forward, and will help us to come together and find our right path as a collective whole.

You can do your part: Think about what has transpired in your life over the past year. Which moments brought you the most happiness? Smile to them with gratitude. Now think about the moments in which you were the most uncomfortable – the moments that brought you pain, and in so doing compelled you to do something differently, to grow. Smile to them also with gratitude.

Now think about what makes you feel the happiest that has taken place outside of your home – in your community, the nation or the world at large. Then reflect on what makes you feel the most uncomfortable in the way certain ethnic or cultural groups are being treated, or the way we are treating the environment. Whatever makes you feel uncomfortable and ashamed, love that feeling within you: it is the seed of change. Cultivate it as you do your happiness.

Shakespeare once wrote: “There is no such thing as good or bad; our thinking makes it so.” Smile to every part of you, and every part of our history, with no trace of judgment whatsoever. Embrace with gratitude the joy and the learning that show up at your doorstep every day. This will bring forth an unconditional love within you that will spill out into every area of your life, causing you to bring joy into the lives of others and to live on purpose.

That is a lot to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving.

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Anthony Silard is the president of The Global Leadership Institute and the author of the Simon & Schuster book The Connection: Link Your Passion, Purpose, and Actions to Make a Difference in the World. To receive Smile, It's Monday each week in your inbox and a free copy of Anthony's new audio CD, "The Surprising Source of Your Passion", enter your email here (1-step only).