Gratitude, and the Upside of “Not Having”

This old family photo, taken one Thanksgiving about 70 years ago, is one of my favorites. Those were simple times when people didn’t have much, but I can feel everyone’s joy and gratitude spilling right out of the picture.

This past Sunday as I was riding my bicycle home from church, where the sermon was about gratitude, I came upon my favorite pine tree, a really pretty, towering specimen with long soft needles. Not only is it a beautiful tree; it also sheds regularly, providing me with great mulch for my yard. As is my habit, I grabbed handfuls of the pine needles that had collected in the gutter, and stuffed into my bicycle panniers as many as would fit.

Many Sundays as I’m riding to or from church along that long road, I see curbside treasure such as huge piles of leaves; furniture; plants; lumber; piles and piles of bamboo poles. Many times I have regretted not having a bicycle trailer. Then again, when I look back over the months and years that I have NOT been able to pick up stuff because I didn’t have a way to carry it home, it comes to me that if I had picked up all the stuff I thought I wanted, my house would be crammed with junk.

And when I look back, I can’t really remember all the stuff that was so great I just thought I absolutely needed it. One of my favorite quotes, by ultralight hiker Ray Jardine (of Ray-Way Tarp fame), comes to mind: “If you need it, but don’t have it … you don’t need it.” There are advantages to NOT being able to carry home everything.

Along with my haul of precious mulch, I also carried home plenty of gratitude. Our pastor had spoken about the “market gods” and how they fuel our desire for more, more, more — and how it never ends up being enough. My favorite antidote to that insatiable feeling is to deliberately feel gratitude in the moment. Gratitude turns whatever I have into more than enough.

Back when I lived in an RV, every little inch of space was a gift. Sometimes I’d free up a couple centimeters of space, and it would really feel like miles and miles of Texas! (I was living in Texas at the time, and would often break out into a joyous chorus of “Miles and Miles of Texas” when I’d discover some unused inch of space here or there in the RV.) This joy at a small thing is a huge feeling.

One time on a solo bicycle trip from Austin to New Mexico, I found myself at a roadside rest stop with leftover french fries from a diner lunch, and half a bottle of Gatorade from my afternoon snack stop. Plus a couple of Little Debbie snack cakes. Tasted like a five-star supper to me! Later as I crawled into my sleeping bag, with only a tarp underneath — no cushion from the concrete ground — I felt like a queen sinking into the finest featherbed.

By no means do I always feel this way. Oftentimes it’s the total opposite, in fact! I can be in luxurious circumstances, eating fancy food, having other people do everything for me, and still feel restless and unsatisfied. In fact, many times it actually ends up being easier for me to feel gratitude over simple things than over something luxurious and amazing. Maybe some sort of spoiled-brat reflex kicks in beyond a certain level of richness.

Gratitude is something I have to put conscious effort into at times, but it’s an investment that pays off in cascading dividends. I would really like for gratitude and appreciation to become more prevalent in USAmerican culture. I’d like to see us, as a people, have the ability to be more content with less. And that would be good for the planet also.