2023 Words: Practice Gratitude

 I had the privilege again this past Advent to create liturgies for the lighting of each advent candle for our church. When we got to the third Sunday and the candle of joy (12/11/22 post) I asked some of my fellow fans of Dr. Brené Brown to help me find what she has said about joy.  My friend Jean Wright came through with this gem from Dr. Brown: “In our research we found that everyone who showed a deep capacity for joy had one thing in common: They practiced gratitude…A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle in the world.  It’s not always easy or comfortable – but what makes joy possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.” 

There’s an old joke about someone asking how to get to Carnegie Hall. The answer is “practice, practice, practice.”  Well, apparently the way to get to Joy is also, like any other life skill, to practice. Since I am by nature a skeptical, glass half empty kind of person, learning gratitude for me is something that requires lots and lots of practice. Practice is hard.  Playing scales on the piano is work. Practicing on the putting green for hours is not nearly as much fun as hitting the crap out of a ball on the driving range.  But no one will master the piano or lower their golf score without those basic practices.

It is no coincidence that my friend Jean Wright’s daughter, Katy, recently shared her wisdom about gratitude that she learned from podcasts with Kate Bowler and Kelly Corrigan who indirectly address the practice of gratitude by dividing life experiences into two categories, the “happies” and the “crappies.” The trick, of course, is paying at least an equal amount of attention to the former as we do the latter. 

One of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Bill Brown, developed a rhetorical theory that helps with this task. He calls it “attention shifting,” which I will oversimplify here by saying it means intentionally shifting our focus or attention from one thing to another. I was reminded recently of another related skill for keeping things in perspective and practicing gratitude when my wife and I attended a high school production of “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” produced by the excellent Theater Arts Department at Thomas Worthington High School in Worthington, OH. Our great nephew Ryan Buckley has been part of that program for all four of his high school years, and we have enjoyed many plays there; but one scene in this production really resonated with me.

The Kindergarten play is based on the book by the same title by Robert Fulghum. I have read most of Fulghum’s stuff; so this story was familiar, but I must have been ready to hear it again. It’s a little long for a blog post, but I am going to include it here in full because it is so good.

Fulghum writes: “In the summer of 1959, at the Feather River Inn near the town of Blairsden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of northern California.  A resort environment.  And I, just out of college, have a job that combines being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping out with the horse-wrangling at the stables.  The owner/manager is Italian-Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment.  He and I do not get along.  I think he’s a fascist who wants pleasant employees who know their place, and he thinks I’m a good example of how democracy can be carried too far.  I’m twenty-two and pretty free with my opinions, and he’s fifty-two and has a few opinions of his own.

One week the employees had been served the same thing for lunch every single day.  Two wieners, a mound of sauerkraut, and stale rolls.  To compound insult with injury, the cost of meals was deducted from our check.  I was outraged.

On Friday night of that awful week, I was at my desk job around 11:00 P.M., and the night auditor had just come on duty.  I went into the kitchen to get a bite to eat and saw notes to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut are on the employee menu for two more days.

That tears it.  I quit!  For lack of a better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman.
I declared that I have had it up to here; that I am going to get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and go and wake up the owner and throw it on him.

I am sick and tired of this crap and insulted and nobody is going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it and who does he think he is anyhow and how can life be sustained on wieners and sauerkraut and this is un-American and I don’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat it one day for God’s sake and the whole hotel stinks anyhow and the horses are all nags and the guests are all idiots and I’m packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to the pigs.  Something like that.  I’m still mad about it.

I raved on this way for twenty minutes, and needn’t repeat it all here.  You get the drift.  My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated by blows on the front desk with a fly-swatter, the kicking of chairs, and much profanity.  A call to arms, freedom, unions, uprisings, and the breaking of chains for the working masses.

As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman, the night auditor, sat quietly on his stool, smoking a cigarette, watching me with sorrowful eyes.  Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman.  He’s got good reason to look sorrowful.  Survivor of Auschwitz.  Three years.  German Jew.  Thin, coughed a lot.  He liked being alone at the night job–gave him intellectual space, gave him peace and quiet, and, even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted to–all the wieners and sauerkraut he wanted.  To him, a feast.  More than that, there’s nobody around at night to tell him what to do.  In Auschwitz he dreamed of such a time.  The only person he sees at work is me, the nightly disturber of his dream.  Our shifts overlap for an hour.  And here I am again.  A one-man war party at full cry.

“Fulchum, are you finished?”

“No.  Why?”

Lissen, Fulchum.  Lissen me, lissen me.  You know what’s wrong with you?  It’s not wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem.

“If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire–then you got a problem.  Everything else is inconvenience.  Life is inconvenient.  Life is lumpy.

“Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems.  You will live longer.  And will not annoy people like me so much.  Good night.”

In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed.

* * *

Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes with a truth so hard.  Years later I heard a Japanese Zen Buddhist priest describe what the moment of enlightenment was like and I knew exactly what he meant.  There in that late-night darkness of the Feather River Inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.

For thirty years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks:  “Fulchum.  Problem or inconvenience?”

I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality.  Life is lumpy.  And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump.  One should learn the difference.  Good night, Sig.

As I reflect on the year 2022 it is very easy for me to see the entire year through the lens of the last couple of months which have been rather crappy for me. Following my 76th birthday at the end of October my 77th trip around the sun began with an unexpected hospital stay because of a very serious urinary tract infection. That urinary infection has turned out to be one that is very hard to get rid of and has been bothering me off and on for about seven weeks now. Because of that it has been easy for me to throw a pity party for myself if I forget to keep my focus on the larger scheme of things. This illness is just an inconvenience. Other than the time I spent in the hospital and I a few days after that, I have been able to continue my normal daily activities. Those activities included the aforementioned opportunities to create Advent liturgies for worship in our church. And by sharing those liturgies in my blog, they have also been used by a number of other readers and worship leaders, for which I am grateful.  I even got a bit of a chuckle each week during Advent when I noticed that the number of clicks on my Advent liturgies always seemed to go up about Thursday or Friday. I remember from my days of active pastoral ministry those were the days of the week when I suddenly realized I needed some help with worship resources for the coming Sunday.

I also realized this week that part of the attention shifting/gratitude practice is keeping my focus on the big picture and not just what is immediately in front or behind me. By paying too much attention to my recent illness I had completely forgotten about an amazing therapeutic golf program I became a part of this summer. That program is quite appropriately called “Fore Hope.“ In brief, this program pairs a wonderful volunteer “caddie” with each golfer. These caddies help the golfers with whatever that individual needs, from loading clubs on the golf cart, putting the ball on the tee, hunting for wayward balls, or literally holding the golfer up while he or she swings if there are balance issues. Having the opportunity to be a part of that program has given me a lot of hope and a new lease on life because I have been able to do something that I dearly love, which I thought was gone forever because of my health concerns. It has enabled me to play golf again with my son, and for the first time with two of my grandsons, and to my surprise as an introvert it also made me a part of a whole new community of friends.

I played my last golf with that group in mid-October and could not have written a more satisfying script for that evening. It was chilly, as October evenings are want to be in Ohio, and I almost wimped out and didn’t go; but I am so glad that I did. You see it turned out to be one of those magical times on the golf course when every putt found its way into or very close to the cup. And what is so special about the Fore Hope Golf community is that everybody is a cheerleader. We don’t keep score; so there is no insidious competition, and when any player makes a good shot everyone genuinely affirms that accomplishment.

But here’s the thing—about three weeks later I was flat on my back in the hospital and in the ensuing recovery from that experience, because I did not practice gratitude, I forgot all about the sheer joy I felt sharing those days on the golf course with my new friends. So for me, at least, an important part of the practice of gratitude is paying attention more often to the happies, and not letting the crappies which come along for all of us knock those moments of joy out of my awareness.

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