I’ve been feeling a different sort of gratitude these days. Not gratitude for stuff that has happened – although there’s plenty of that in me – more being grateful for things that haven’t happened, with two big ones this week. Last summer, in Ireland, in Lidl, I bought a kettle. Mad you say. Surely they sell kettles in Hungary. Even ones not made in China. And yes, they do.
Another week over with me sitting here on a Monday evening wondering where it all went to. It’s the end of January already. And it’s been a mad opening to what promises to be a mental year.
There is so much to be grateful for after the full week I had last week and there’s more to come on that when I get my head around it all. But for now, after a long, long series of disbelieving cries and loud exclamations of incredulity, I am ever so grateful to MK for drawing my attention to Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator speech, one apparently he penned himself. It’s a timely reminder of what we should be striving towards: a world of reason.
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost….
The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people.
To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
I heard once that what you do on New Year’s Day determines what you do for the rest of the year. At 11.55 last night, I was standing on my balcony, sipping a glass of bubbly, looking into the dark. All was quiet. Even the geese. I was reminded of Pico Iyer’s piece on the Eloquent Sounds of Silence:
We have to earn silence, then, to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows.
Then 2017 came flooding in and the silence was shattered. The geese kicked up quite the racket down by the water and the village dogs howled at the fireworks that were going off all around the lake. I had my own private viewing point. It was pretty spectacular. No people. No crowds. Just me and the geese and the bubbly and the cold. When the fireworks stopped, the stars looked all the brighter.
Cold but happy, I went downstairs and, in true Hungarian tradition, ate a spoonful of lentil soup that I’d made earlier. This, apparently, will ensure that I have enough of everything in 2017. [Enough is a concept that is underrated. If we had more appreciation for it, we might be a lot happier.]
I fell asleep with Cormoran Strike, the detective created by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) [an excellent series, btw] and woke this morning in time for 8 am mass. Someone else was in what I’ve come to regard as my seat in the church – visiting family no doubt – and we’re not due a priest till next Sunday so it wasn’t the full Monty- but it was a lovely way to start the day.
Since then I’ve been cleaning and cooking and making beds in preparation for The Visitors who are wending their way down the north shore of the Balaton as I write. At last contact they were in Tihanyi. The table is set. The beer and wine are chilling. The fish is prepped. And the lentil soup is just waiting for its ham.
All is good in my world. My closing Grateful piece of 2016 spoke of restoration and my hope that 2017 would be a restorative one. So far it’s off to a great start. Life is good.
But in Istanbul, hundreds of people trying to make sense of more senseless deaths. In Russia, families of those lost in the plane crash on Christmas Day are in mourning. In Syria and other war-torn parts of the world, people woke up to a different sort of day. I have a blessed life and with that blessing comes a duty, an obligation, to make the most of it. And remembering to say thanks is just the start.
I started this series of blogs back in 2012. Five years later, I can’t imagine not taking the time to appreciate just how good I have it. This is how it began:
Many years ago I worked with this very bubbly young American girl whom I avoided like the plague in the mornings. I just couldn’t handle her effervescence; I liked mine soluble, in tablet form. Working late one evening, we were chatting about whatever, when she told me that every night, before she went to sleep, she tried to think of ten things that had happened that day for which she could be thankful. And some nights she fell asleep before she reached No. 10.
She challenged me to try it. I was sure that I’d have no trouble finding ten things to be thankful for. And I’ve been doing it every night for the last eight years because it keeps me focused and it keeps me positive…well, sort of positive ?
It’s way too easy to let go and submerge myself in the daily horrors of 21st century living. It’s far too convenient to spend my days worrying about global problems that I cannot hope to fix or even effect and in doing so miss out on today. It’s really not all that difficult to lose sight of what’s important – and who’s important – as I spend my time moaning about what might have been.
My nightly lists will never be published in a miscellany. David Letterman is unlikely to ask to borrow them for his Top 10. But ranging as they do from the ridiculous (I am grateful that I noticed my skirt was tucked into my tights before I walked out on to the street) to the sublime (I am grateful to Árpád at Kadarka wine bar on Kiraly utca for introducing me to Fecsegő), chalking them up each night has become a ritual and as close to meditation as I can get.
I can’t help but wonder what our world would be like if more people took the time to give thanks – to themselves and to others. Thanks for the little things that make life worth living. Thanks for the people in our lives who keep us sane. And thanks for karma – who, will, at the end of the day, make sure that all wrongs are righted.
Inspired by the inimitable Biddy McD in Australia who has kept the world amused by her photo album Grateful 365 and posted a pic a day of something she and her two sons are grateful for, I’ve decided to be less adventurous but equally committed and focus each week on something I’m grateful for. Introducing Grateful 52.
Today, as 2017 gets underway, I’m grateful for gratitude and the comfort it brings.
Boldog új évet – Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh – Happy New Year
And so, three years of being grateful draw to a close. It was back in 2012 when the inimitable Biddy McD put me on to this grateful kick with her daily photo posts capturing her gratefulness. I thought it a lovely way to stay mindful of all the good that happens to me rather than get bogged down in what ifs, whys, and wherefores. While I enjoy the occasional wallow in self-pity, they’ve been few and far between in the last few years and this I attribute to bring consciously grateful for the smallest, most insignificant things in life.
It need only be something as simple as public transport cooperating with me. And it happens seldom enough to make it notable 🙂 There’s a lovely sense of synchronicity if I venture out in Budapest and each time I get to a tram stop, a metro station, or a bus or trolley stop, they arrive, unbidden. And when it happens a few times in succession in a given day, I feel like the gods are watching over me and paying special attention. And that day becomes special.
It might be something as banal as a change in schedule that, while irritating at the time, has a domino effect and frees up the day to let better things happen. It could be a phone call, an email, a text message from someone I haven’t heard from in a while or any of the same from someone I hear from every day. I’ve had my world turned upside down by two people telling me how proud they were of me and I’ve been ever so grateful for silence.
There’s nothing to overthink. No matter how bad life is, there’s always something to be grateful for. It is or isn’t raining. The postman brought or didn’t bring a letter. The alarm did or didn’t go off on time. It’s a matter of choice to be thankful.
I have some fascinating friends: one I lost this year, another continues to be there for me in his own quiet way, others open new windows for me and offer me a different perspective on the world. I get to travel as often as I can make it happen and am fortunate enough to have friends around the world who always make me welcome. I might only see them every few years, but it always feels as if the time in between could have been measured in days rather than decades.
Gratitude is somewhat divisive. Stalin reckoned it was a sickness suffered by dogs. The great Dorothy Parker thought it the meanest and most snivelling attribute in the world. But, for my money, it was Chesterton who captured its essence: When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. And yet Nietzsche also has a word of caution: There are slavish souls who carry their appreciate for favors done them so far that they strangle themselves with the rope of gratitude.
There’s a balance to be found, and three years in, I think I’ve finally got the hang of it. Thank you for letting me practice on you.
Two years into my weekly grateful blogs, I’ve decided it’s worth doing for yet another 52 weeks. We have so much in life to be grateful for and we don’t take nearly enough time to express that gratitude, be it to ourselves, to our families, to our friends, to our colleagues, or to our God. Even perfect strangers could do with a little thanks.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that this apparently lack of gratefulness stems not from any innate sense of ingratitude but is more to do with what we perceive as a lack of time. We’re simply too busy doing, thinking, and planning to pause for the few seconds it takes to verbalise that gratitude, or write that email, or send that text, or make that phone call. Who amongst us wouldn’t appreciate a Thank You card every now and then for something we’ve done. Okay, so many of us would probably pooh pooh it, with an ‘ah schucks, it was nothing’ but the recognition would stick regardless and might even prompt us to do something nice again, sooner than we might otherwise have done.
There is nothing worse that being thanked with cards and presents for every little thing we do… to me, that’s the same as a constant ‘I love you’… when we hear it so often, it tends to lose its meaning. And yes, there’s a fine line between too often and not often enough but I’m sure that more scientific minds than mine could come up with an equation that would quickly sort that out. Good manners though would dictate that a courteous ‘thank you’ be a habit, right alongside its sister ‘please’.
Gratitude should be mindful. And the magic of being grateful for the little things in life is that it does work – it makes the world a better place – it’s made my world a better place these past couple of years. Think pebble, pond, ripple effect.
Our actions speak volumes for who we are. People notice. And if they like what they see, they imitate. Likewise, the thoughts we express also reflect who we are. We can never know when a throwaway comment can ruin us or make us or worse still, ruin or make an innocent third party. I know I’ve lost a few friends and acquaintances over comments I’ve made that have been repeated out of context and indeed misunderstood in context – and that’s all part and parcel of living. But if the string we use to wrap our lives is one coated in sincerity and honesty and good intentions, then how much better the world might be.
If we start with being grateful for the little things, then better things start to happen and pretty soon we find we’re being grateful for big things, too. We begin to reshape our world by actively engaging with it. Life is a choice. We can choose how we react to gossip, to bad news, to the opinions of others. We can choose to get even or to let go. We can choose to forgive and try to forget or to bear a grudge and let it eat away inside us. We can choose to be grateful or to take for granted all that life can offer.
Each night, I try to think of ten things that I’m grateful for that happened today. It’s better than counting sheep. Often I don’t make it to No. 5. Or get sidetracked on No. 2. It’s usually silly stuff like the tram coming just as I arrived at the stop, or the first shop I went to having the one ingredient I needed, or noticing that the bath was about to run over before the first drop of water spilled on to the floor. This has developed into a conscious habit that has made me a lot more aware of what’s happening in the world around me and a lot more engaged with my life and how I choose to live it.
My challenge to you for 2014 is to express that gratitude. If someone has made a difference or is making a difference in your life, tell them. If you get good service, acknowledge it. If someone holds open the door for you, say thanks before walking through it. Being grateful costs nothing, but to put a value on gratitude is nigh on impossible.
As the first week of the New Year draws to a close, I’m grateful that I got to spend so much of it walking beaches, in the freezing cold, getting soaked by waves. I’m grateful for feeling so alive.
It’s hard to believe that yet another year has passed. This is the last of 52 posts in the Grateful 2013 series, an idea inspired by the inimitable BMcD a couple of years ago. Had you told me then, Biddy, how much my life would have changed as a result, I’d probably have laughed in something approaching a quiet disbelief.
I’ve waded through shelves of self-help books in my time and recognised a common thread in the importance of giving thanks, of being grateful. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical when it came to believing that the more I give thanks, the more the universe responds. But now, two years later, I am living testimony to the fact that it does work. Life is good – damn good.
This year has been one filled with old friends, new friends, old new friends, and new old friends. To all of you who have touched my life, no matter how tangentially, thank you. You may never know the difference you have made. Even those nasty encounters with meanness and pettiness served as a stark contrast to the kindness and support that was much more visible and as a reminder of all that is good about human nature.
I thought I’d wrap up this year by sharing some quotations – words of others who have so beautifully captured my wish for you all in 2014:
Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. ― Epicurus
Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude. ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance. ― Eckhart Tolle
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.
My bubble has burst. I’ve found fault with my hero – Dorothy Parker. You know Dorothy? I like to think that she lived just long enough to make sure that I was born and could carry on her mantel. Her career took off when she stood in for PG Wodehouse as theatre critic for Vanity Fair in 1918. She soon became famous for her caustic wit and has left a legacy of witticisms that still hold true today. Her actual legacy she left to Martin Luther King Jr and, upon his death, it passed to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She suggested her own epitaph ‘Excuse my dust’ – and her ashes sat in a filing cabinet in her lawyer’s office for 17 years before they found a home in a memorial garden at the NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.
Her criticism of Katherine Hepburn says it all: ‘She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B’. One of her famous put-downs: ‘That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say “No” in any of them’. And when asked to put the word ‘horticulture’ in a sentence she delivered the classic ‘You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think’. What can I say? I love the woman (and I don’t use the L-word lightly).
So when I read a nasty quote recently that was attributed to her, I was suitably upset. No, I was more than upset. I was gutted. Gratitude, said she, is the meanest and most snivelling attribute in the world. How could it be? How could I admire and respect and look up to someone who figured gratitude to be a mean and snivelling attribute while at the same time respect and admire another someone who has taken the art of gratitude to new levels?
My mate Biddy in Australia (her with the red hair who has featured in this column before) is putting her social networks to good use and using Facebook to spread the love. Each day, Biddy and her two sons post a photograph of something they are grateful for. It could be anything from a picture of their breakfast to one of the lads on stage in a school play. It’s spurred others on to be equally public in with their gratitude. Even yours truly has been blogging in a series call Grateful 52 since the beginning of this year. Given that my New Year’s resolutions generally remain resolute for all of a month, I didn’t want to attempt a daily offering, so I opted instead for a weekly one – hence Grateful 52. (I was telling someone about it the other day and they took it as being my age and told me I was looking good for someone of such tender years – am still trying to milk a compliment from that one!)
So, two of my favourite women – one very much alive in body, the other just alive in spirit – would appear to have polar opposite opinions. As in all such times of quandary, I resort to my thesaurus in search of enlightenment. Gratitude has a number of synonyms – gratefulness, thankfulness, thanks, appreciation, indebtedness, recognition, acknowledgement, and credit. And a little light bulb goes on. While I can agree wholeheartedly with the idea of being thankful on a daily if not hourly basis for what we have been given in this life and can fully subscribe to appreciating and recognising our good fortune, I stumble over the concept of indebtedness.
Give and take
I’ve been the giver in a relationship or friendship almost as often as I’ve been the taker. In San Diego, I used to make my mate Lori write a check for $48 if she wanted me to skive off work and go play for the day. If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. And she had the money to make it good. I had no qualms about it. Likewise there are people in my life who earn considerably more money than I do, and I have no problem with them treating me to dinner or the theatre or a weekend away. When I started to make friends in Budapest and tried to continue this practice with me being in the giving seat for a change, I met with a blanket refusal. Whenever I showed my gratitude for help and friendship by doing something nice, it created a debt cycle. Why do we find it so difficult to accept help or compliments or favors? Why is it so much easier to give than to take? It’s a delicate balance, this gratitude thing – and I can only hope that Dorothy was railing against the indebtedness it can create rather than the acknowledgement of good things and good people.
First published in the Budapest Times 23 March 2012