Upon arriving at the university’s spacious pool, I observed that most of the lanes were still open. I chose lane one. As I prepared to enter the water, I noticed a pair of tiny pink flip-flops at the poolside. Someone’s little girl had apparently left them behind.
The water was chilly but refreshing. Pushing off, I swam a leisurely lap, breast stroke up, crawl stroke back. I hadn’t been swimming in quite a while, and I’d forgotten how pleasant the experience could be.
Upon surfacing, however, I was greeted by a little girl in a pink bathing suit. She was sitting on the edge of the pool, dangling her legs in the water. She wore a frown and looked perturbed.
“Why are you in my lane?” she demanded to know.
“I wasn’t aware that this was your lane,” said I. “Are those your little pink shoes?”
“Yes!” she snapped, as though the answer should have been obvious.
“Well, in that case, why don’t I take the next lane, and you can have this one?”
Without waiting for an answer, I ducked under the floating rope and stepped into lane two. But as I prepared to push off, I heard a still small voice saying, “You’re not supposed to dive under the ropes.” This time, however, I chose to ignore my tormentor. I also wondered where her parents were.
It’s been five months since that encounter, and in retrospect, I believe I might have handled it more skillfully. At the very least I might have seized what educators call a teachable moment. If the child learned any lesson, it was that with sufficient persuasion, a grown man can be made to do her bidding. That does not bode well for her future. More seriously, what the little girl did not learn was the principle of sharing, which I might easily have taught her. And even worse, she learned nothing at all about gratitude. I had given up the lane, which wasn’t hers in the first place. She might have deigned to say thank you.
Perhaps the absence of those two words should not have surprised me. Ingratitude, after all, is nothing new. Shakespeare’s King Lear inveighs against it, calling it a “marble-hearted fiend.” Jonathan Swift proposed it be made a capital offense. In my own lifetime I have experienced ingratitude, personal and institutional, in forms too numerous to mention: gifts not acknowledged, favors unreciprocated, service taken for granted. And truth to tell, I have sometimes embodied ingratitude myself, in situations I would rather not remember.
All that said, it is hard to escape the impression that ingratitude is becoming ever more common in our culture. And conversely, the custom of saying thank you–and meaning it–may well be decreasing in inverse proportion to its hollow, formulaic expression in the world of business and commerce. “Thank you for choosing Delta,” the captain says routinely. “Thank you for your patience,” a robotic voice intones. Like the word Congratulations, the two words Thank You have been subjected to corporate preemption. Their currency has been debased, their force diminished.
That social trend is disturbing, but it needn’t be cause for despair. It is still possible to teach gratitude to children, preferably by example. And though it may not be possible or very wise to demand gratitude from those grown-ups with whom we live and work, it is possible to expect it of ourselves and to cultivate it accordingly.
Buddhist teachings offer a plethora of “skillful means,” as they are called, for developing “wholesome” qualities, including gratitude. For example, we can become aware of that feeling as it arises and endeavor to nurture it. More systematically, we can practice the exercise, “Aware that I have food, shelter, and medicine, I breathe in. / Grateful for my food, shelter, and medicine” (or whatever else we value), “I breathe out.” At first we may feel nothing, but over time our innate capacity for gratitude will grow. In Buddhism, this practice is known as “watering the seeds” of gratitude, seeds common to us all.
In his book Bringing the Sacred to Life, John Daido Loori Roshi offers a further teaching. He invites us to imagine an experiment involving two people. One is asked to spend ten minutes each morning and evening expressing gratitude. The other is directed to spend the same amount of time “practicing complaining.” In a year’s time, Daido Roshi writes, the first subject will have become “a very grateful person.” The second will be more miserable than ever.
“What you practice,” he adds, “is what you are.”
* John Daido Loori, Bringing the Sacred to Life: The Daily Practice of Zen Ritual (Shambhala, 2008), 7.