Allow Me Some Latitude for a Platitude About the Attitude of Gratitude

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Handwritten word Gratitude appearing behind ripped brown paper.

(Continuing the series of articles about what I learned from my recent back surgery.)

Starting around April, when I returned from Pesach, I became increasingly dependent on the use of a cane. I started out with an eight-ball cane that I had left over from some Grunkel Stan cosplay (don’t ask). I thought the eight-ball had a little panache but gripping the spherical head was turning my hand into an immobilized claw-like appendage, so I knew I had to upgrade to something a little more ergonomic. (I still eschewed certain practical features, like a cane that would stand on its own, because of personal vanity.)

I started coming in with the cane only on particularly bad days. Then, I would use it to come and go to work but I’d leave it on my desk while in the office. Soon, it was a constant accessory. As my condition continued to deteriorate, I became more and more hinged at the waist to relieve pressure, so I soon found myself walking around increasingly hunched over. One day after mincha, which I davened gripping the back of a chair, a colleague noted, “That looks painful.” “That’s because it is painful,” I informed him.

But there was one thing I heard repeatedly that made me feel like a million bucks. “You have such a good attitude!” This made me feel a little warm and fuzzy the first time or two I heard it; by the third and fourth time, it was positively therapeutic.

But really, what is there not to feel good about? I had a back injury that caused me pain when I stood or walked but it didn’t hurt me when I sat or lay down. I was thankful for that.

I have a job that, should my condition keep me from the office, could be performed remotely. I was thankful for that.

I had been a regular attendee at the gym for years, which I ultimately had to give up. I could have viewed the years invested as a waste of time, money and effort but I honestly believe that, when my condition “caught up with me” (to use my doctor’s words), it had me in far better shape than I otherwise would have been. I was thankful for that.

I admit that it made me sad to give up my longstanding gym routine but, since sitting caused no pain, I was still able to play the drums. I was thankful for that.

I live in an era of such technological advancement that I was able to see a doctor and schedule a surgery that would hopefully cure my condition, or at the very least mitigate my symptoms. And, if that relief proved insufficient, there are additional avenues that could be pursued. I was thankful for that.

I wasn’t always known for having such a good attitude. In my younger days, I was prone to anxiety, anger, angst and other emotions that start with “an.” These negative feelings eat a person up alive. I have mellowed with age and I highly recommend it.

The mishna in Avos (4:1) famously says, “Who is wealthy? The one who is satisfied with what he has.” One person can have millions in gold and gems but be torn apart because he doesn’t have a uranium mine or a Van Gogh. Another person can live in a tar paper shack and feel truly blessed when he acquires a skinny, poorly-plucked chicken. One is as rich as one feels.

This isn’t only true when it comes to material possessions. There are two parts to everything in life: an objective situation and one’s reaction to it. A person can have almost everything in the world going for him and be miserable, or he can have next to nothing going for him and be satisfied. The question is, what do we focus upon? If we focus on what God has blessed us with, we will be satisfied. If we focus on what He has decided we don’t need, we will be miserable. Therefore, if I’m going to have a bad back, I can do so with a smile or a frown. Maybe I can’t control my spine but I can control whether I smile or frown. So I chose to have one problem (back pain) instead of two (back pain plus walking around feeling angry about it). Having a good attitude lightens my burden.

I am not special for feeling this way. I don’t even think I’m particularly good at it. Life is a work in progress and this is something to work on a little each day. But I’ll share with you what literally changed my life in this area: I read the book Gateway to Happiness by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin. This book is replete with Torah sources. I have recommended it and given it as a gift many times.

Chapter three of Gateway to Happiness is entitled, “Happiness is Dependent on Your Thoughts.” Subheadings in this chapter include, “You constantly choose whether you will focus on the positive or negative,” “Your attitude is a key factor to your reaction,” “You have the ability to view an event or situation in many ways” and “You have the ability to change your negative evaluations to positive ones.” (That’s just chapter three. Other chapters include Realizing One’s Self-Worth, Living in the Present, Worry, Anger, Guilt, Insults and more.)

I can’t promise that this book will change everyone’s life as it did mine. Even if it does, it probably won’t have that effect instantly upon reading; the reader has to invest effort into implementing the ideas that it contains. But if you’re walking around in a funk and you need an “aha moment” that makes you say, “Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing wrong,” something like this is certainly worth a shot.

If a child pouts because his birthday or Chanukah haul doesn’t include every item on his wish list, you might tell him to grow up (or, more bluntly, not to be a brat). If you go to the amusement park and the log flume is closed, I’d like to think that you would still enjoy the roller coaster and the bumper cars, not letting the rides that are down spoil your day. Similarly, God has given us a big, wonderful world that He wants us to enjoy. He doesn’t give any one person absolutely everything. The question is whether we get so bogged down in what we lack that we can’t enjoy what we have.

Sadly, some people do get bogged down in this way. As noted, that just creates a second problem: feeling bad. That weighs us down. If this sounds familiar, try conditioning yourself to focus on the positive. You’ll find that, not only does it not add to your burden, it ultimately lightens the load.

Learn more about gratitude in the NCSY Torah on One Foot
pamphlet Gam Zu L’Tovah – It’s All Good.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.