It’s always struck me as kind of awful to be grateful for what I have because someone else has it so much worse – a viewpoint often referred to as perspective. For instance, when I was told I would need to start wearing a lift in my shoe, it seemed absolutely wrong to be grateful about the mere quarter-inch lift I was going to have to wear because others have to wear a significantly greater built-up shoe.
This seemed to mean, in essence, that someone else’s misfortune would be necessary for me to feel better about the fact that my shoe options had plummeted to only the models that could be opened up between the sole and the shoe part so that a wedge could be inserted. You wouldn’t believe how many kinds of shoes this eliminates, though I could wear all the Birkenstocks I wanted. In other words, someone else’s pain over having to wear a great big shoe is necessary for me to feel grateful about the few remaining shoes I could wear.
In the end, I decided I wanted shoes more than I wanted to avoid the problem a short leg was causing in my weight lifting form, which is how this short leg situation came to light. It all worked out, though, because years later a different physical therapist measured my leg and said my right and left were a matching set. It turns out something other than a short leg was causing the chicken wing thing going on with my right shoulder blade.
But the problem with this “perspective variant” of gratitude gets worse. It’s one thing for me to get to feel better at someone else’s expense. But then there is the flip side, the dark side, when the situation doesn’t fall in my favor. Just look at where I am when someone has something far more noticeable over me than a quarter inch of leg! Say, for example, property right on the ocean while my water view is limited to the occasions my basement floods. With a perspective take on gratitude, I have no choice but to be really unhappy about oceanfront homes. When they aren’t mine, anyway.
So gratitude has always seemed to me to be largely sacrifice-based, with someone’s misery the prompt for my happiness. Then I came across this quote in Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown’s 2017 book about having courage in social connections:
“When you are grateful for what you have, I know you understand the magnitude of what I have lost.”
This put a different twist on gratitude. Brene Brown’s version of gratitude connects us through a felt sort of understanding of this business of having and not having — when we have it and when we don’t. This somewhat subtle distinction carries a humble whisper of recognition that no matter whether the gift is theirs or ours, neither are promises nor necessarily permanent. Both fortune and loss can be quite fleeting. In that way, we are more alike than we are different, really.
Brown’s version made gratitude feel better — not a separation of winners and losers with gratitude essentially amounting to relief that we are not in someone else’s sorry position. Rather, the gratitude of perspective was a communal opportunity to connect based on the humility of standing witness to life and all of the experiences we may each randomly run into.
Then, right in the middle of all these high-minded thoughts, I literally walked into some fortune. I was taking a walk, thinking about this very topic when I found the cash. A twenty dollar bill on the ground. My first reaction, I’m sorry to say, was elation for my good fortune! Cash! All mine! Such sheer joy. There is nothing like being a winner. And I so love finding money on the ground, a fantasy that took hold of me at around age 7 when I found a stack of change equaling 78 cents on the curb in a parking lot where I had gone to sit to eat the candy I had just bought from Rexall Drug. The unexpected boon of coming into money — no matter that I didn’t earn it — planted deep that day and the fantasy just stays with me no matter how old I get. I can’t look at a cigarette pack tossed on the ground without feeling a slight impulse to poke around to see if this is the one stuffed with hundreds.
Decently soon after the tidal wave of fortune-finding joy passed through, compassion for what someone had lost caught up. At least I have that going for my character. The twenty laying on the ground was folded up in quarters like you would do to put in your pocket. It must have worked its way out. How sad! Being Saturday morning, I figured it probably happened Friday night. Where was this person when the twenty was discovered missing? Were they put in a bind? Did they have to go without something? Walk back across the movie theatre parking lot to their car and go home?
With someone else’s twenty in my pocket, I walked home thinking about how this goes, how I’m lucky one day and not the next, how we pass it around, tossing loss and fortune back and forth. And how each time we are touched by loss or fortune when it comes for us, we are connected in that hand-off. How we share in the world’s supply of joy or sadness. How understanding the magnitude of what someone has lost or doesn’t have is like saying I see you.
I. See. You.
When I came home from that walk over a year ago now, I clipped the twenty to my refrigerator to remind me to see. To see you.