This past Sunday, my husband and I took our children to Six Flags Great Adventure. My daughter was performing with the JCC dance troupe there. I loved watching her on stage. However, the rest of Six Flags is not my (spinning) cup of tea. I fell off a mountain when I was 16, and I have had a fear of heights since. I like to push myself to overcome that fear occasionally, but a full day of roller coasters is my idea of torture. So, I held the backpacks and waited at the exit ramps like a champ. I enjoyed my kids enjoying themselves. I thanked God for my husband. And I got to go on safari in deepest, darkest New Jersey.
Even as we enjoyed ourselves on a day of leisure and indulgence, each member of the family had our complaints. My husband expressed shock at the cost of parking and kosher food, dismay at the ads and product placement everywhere. The kids kvetched about standing in long lines. We forgot a hat. My daughter’s feet hurt. I was disappointed that people did not go in groups to fill up the cable car or safari jeep efficiently, but insisted on traveling only with their party. This was American independence gone amok! And I was misdirected. Why didn’t the workers know the map of the adventure park!? And this was just the litany we verbalized.
These are not “first world problems.” They aren’t problems at all.
That night before bed, my son tearfully thanked me. “You and Pops do so much for us. You spent money, and I know you don’t really like amusement parks. I really appreciate it!”
I told him the truth: I may not love theme parks, but I love going with my kids. His dad and I are happy to save up for special outings as a family; that is our joy. And his gratitude makes my heart swell with gratitude. It’s not just that he is a great kid (though, of course, I think he is). It’s that once someone leads you into a mindset of gratitude, it seems like the most obvious, rightful, and beautiful thing in the world. You want to partake, reciprocate, live there.
By the same token, when you focus on how hot and sweaty you are, or those rude people who just cut the line, when you recite an inner monologue condemning the commercialization of “fun,” then you fall back just as quickly into a complaining, impatient, entitled, and arrogant mindset that seems perfectly “normal.” Live there at your peril.
It’s easy to backslide. Gratitude is not a default for most people. I, for one, have to consciously choose it. Over and over.
I attended a conference on women in the rabbinate last week. I enjoyed some of the rides â€¦ er, sessionsâ€¦ more than others. I found things to condemn and things to celebrate. One particular decision by conference organizers was, in my opinion, a major mistake – in fact, an insult. When a friend, who was among the organizers, asked me what my reaction was, I gave it to her with both barrels. I was calm, but very disapproving. I also expressed gratitude for her efforts, but the main message was my upset.
Just then, a rabbi who had taken my class on gratitude at the Rabbinic Training Institute a couple of years back came up to me and said, “Thank God! I thought you were so perfect. It’s good to see that you complain, too.”
I felt the righteousness of my complaint – and of her observation. It was a humbling, human moment.
I saw two perspectives, clearly and simultaneously. The first: The organizers were wrong in what they did, I was wrong in calling my friend out on that error so vociferously, and my colleague and former student was wrong for embarrassing me.
The second: the organizers had been trying to honor the first cohort of women rabbis; though I do believe they were in error, I also believe they were doing their best. I was in pain, and managed to be funny and self-deprecating while delivering a difficult but necessary message. My timing may have been lousy – I responded to what I am sure my friend thought was a casual, pass-you-in-the-hall question with strong opinions that demanded her full attention. But I was doing my best. My friend on the organizing committee received my message without defensiveness and asked me to please give my feedback to the other organizers as well. She reflected on her own process of decision-making, explaining why she didn’t intervene when she perhaps should have. She was doing her best. My student had graciously told me many times how inspired she had been by my teachings on gratitude. Apparently, she also felt inadequate in the face of them. She was relieved when she saw me complain – and felt friendly and close enough to me that she could say so. She, too, was doing her best.
It’s harder to capture the second perspective. I am sure I didn’t get all the words or summaries right. But the feeling, I hope, is conveyed. It was a peaceful feeling. My mind seemed to say: “there is fault in everything and everyone, and everything/everyone is also fine and beautiful.”
I don’t mean to suggest that all complaining is wrong. Righteous rebuke is holy. Spiritual dissatisfaction is the most frequent motivation for repairing the world. But almost everyone could benefit by expressing complaints less and gratitude more. Myself, of course, included.
Here is one way to express gratitude: Thanks, Six Flags Corporation and employees, for doing your best. Thanks, family, for the same. Thanks, fellow rabbis. Just. Thanks.