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Gratitude is the heart’s memory.
–French Proverb

“There’s always something to be grateful for.” So says Rachel Walton, a hospice nurse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s a remarkable statement coming from a woman who is around death and grieving all the time. “Sometimes I think about the fact that I can see. It opens me up. It opens up my vision. I realize all the beauty around me. And when you have that kind of awareness, you start tapping into the heart.”

Being appreciative or “tapping into the heart” is another way that exceptional human beings steer and enrich their own lives as well those of others. With Walton’s help, we can understand the real power of appreciation.

For one thing, being appreciative makes Walton receptive. “When I walk into a patient’s room, with their family, I really try to walk in without any assumptions and I let them lead. If you do walk in with assumptions, you miss who that person is and what their needs are. It requires a capacity to be quiet and to listen very carefully . . . I have to not be thinking about other things, not be in a rush, not distracted, not trying to make something happen. As I approach the room, I say to myself, ‘Let me hear what needs to be heard, and say what needs to be spoken.'”

As she works with those who have reached the end of their lives, and their loved ones, Walton also has regular experiences of intense calm, elation, and a sense that some kind of invisible hand is at work: “I feel settled in myself when I’m with these people. I have experiences where words and thoughts come through me that I don’t consciously think. I’m in the stream of something . . . I have moments of absolute joy–I think, ‘It’s so amazing that I get to be here with these people at this moment,’ and my heart gets so huge.”

The ability to be still, present, and alert to others allows you to see all there is to be grateful for. You may be aware of beauty or quiet. You may become aware of pain and confusion. That pain can make you realize your own peace and strength–for which you can and ought to be grateful. What’s particularly interesting is that the good souls among the great achievers of our time are appreciative of the small, daily, cost-free occurrences in their lives.

In Motivation and Personality, 20th Century psychologist Abraham Maslow noted that particularly healthy psyches “have the wonderful capacity to appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life, with awe, pleasure, wonder, and even ecstasy.”

Maslow wasn’t treading new terrain here–most books and articles on achieving joy and fulfillment cite the ability to appreciate. While the most capable often have many earthly belongings, they are most gratified by life’s regular, simpler blessings, such as good weather, natural surroundings, children, animals, good food, small favors, music and more.

However, Maslow takes it a large step further by warning that a lack of appreciation for “our blessings is one of the most important nonevil generators of human evil, tragedy, and suffering. What we take for granted we undervalue, and we are therefore too apt to sell a valuable birthright for a mess of pottage.” You have no idea where you will be in a year. You may become ill or suffer some financial setback. Someone you love dearly may be gone. Accepting these potential realities can and ought to give you much more appreciation for everything you have right now.

We’re all so busy rushing around, trying to compete, earn, and achieve, that we often fail to appreciate the experiences that we all have, especially those that happen with regularity. This is particularly true for those of us lucky enough to be born in free, market-based democracies. We have so much to distract and excite us that we rarely take a deep breath and marvel at the life and mystery all around us.

But like Rachel Walton, a hospice nurse, the best human beings are acutely aware of pain and loss, and know that destiny and disease can deal a body blow at any time. This does not make them fearful. It makes them grateful for every day that is healthy and safe. Like animals in the wild, they accept these dangers while being on guard against them. So it makes sublime sense that the good souls among great achievers appreciate every moment that evil, bad luck, and physical calamity are kept at bay.

How You Can Be More Appreciative

Perhaps most valuable is simply setting yourself aside and taking some time each day to be still. Be an observer, not an active do-er. If you can, it’s best to do this outdoors. There is a lot going on in nature, even in a small garden or an apartment balcony. Be a part of it. You may experience wind and sound. But if you suspend all your earthly, man made concerns, something Joseph Campbell calls “creative incubation” will take place.

What you might incubate could be an idea or longing or direction for your life that only you can create. This quiet time can help bring you closer to two other Traits of the strongest and best among us: recovered creativity as well as personal autonomy.

The more you study them, the more you’ll notice that each of these 19 Traits supports and fuels the others. If you start working on one, you can’t help but start inculcating others!

Cheers from Sonoma,

Donald Van de Mark

Author, The Good Among the Great, 19 Traits of the Most Admired, Creative and Joyous Human Beings

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About the author

Donald Van de Mark
Donald Van de Mark is the author of The Good Among the Great: 19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People.

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