Last week, we considered the concept of recognizing goodness. Almost everyone who sent feedback agreed that recognizing goodness is a worthy goal. This week, let’s consider how we might help ourselves to achieve that goal.
Every so often, I have a coaching session in the local Gym. Improvement of my posture is one of the trainer's primary objectives. Posture has been a problem of mine for as long as I can recall. One of the nagging memories of my childhood is my mother's frequent attempts to correct this matter. So much so, that I envision my ultimate parting from mom (far into the future, of course) as a pastoral bedside scene wherein her three children lovingly surround her until it becomes my turn to bend down and plant a good-bye kiss on her cheek, only to hear her whisper in my ear: "For the last time, Benjamin, stand up straight!"
My coach has been working on the tiny muscles of my ankles because those seemingly insignificant structures serve as the scaffolding to keep the rest of the body aligned. That idea prompts me to think that we each must have a collection of small, metaphorical muscles which, if we strengthen them, would enhance our ability for recognizing goodness. So I’ve started working on those “muscle building” exercises as well. Perhaps you’d like to try a few.
We can start most easily by recognizing the good in everyone who helps us and by thanking them. We might begin with people to whom we’re not especially close, to avoid emotional "baggage" that might impede our good intent. As we practice, our expressions of gratitude should flow naturally, with positive results.
Whom might we thank? When I was a young doctor, I made it a point to learn the names of the radiology department librarians and to personally thank them for retrieving the x-rays that I needed. As a result, the librarians supplied my requests in a prompt and courteous manner. Not always so for colleagues who treated those librarians as faceless receptionists. Granted, my efforts brought benefit to me, but more important, the results showed that my recognizing good was appreciated.
Nowadays, all radiology departments have been fully digitalized so that those positions have been eliminated but there are still numerous folks we come in contact with who would thrive on the same courtesy. When I wish my letter carrier a good morning, I get the immediate reward of a smile and the longer-term hope that he will pass on pleasant greetings to others on his route who might then continue the spreading of cheer to the people they meet as the day unfolds. The process might not always be infectious but I have invested so little for the possibility of this enormous upside.
We can recognize, also, goodness done by people who are no longer living. Have we thanked Noah Webster lately for his dictionaries or Steve Jobs for the shower of innovations? OK, I get it, thanking a dead person doesn't do much for the deceased but the point is we get to activate our own mental tracts that allows us to appreciate the contributions of others.
We can act to recognize the goodness of even inanimate objects. Some forty years ago, a friend of mine was traveling on a train when suddenly the car in front of him burst into flames. He managed to pry a fire extinguisher off the wall near his seat and use it to smash a window, liberating dozens of potentially trapped passengers. He tells me that every time he rides the railways he feels gratitude toward the fire extinguishers. It's not about anthropomorphizing objects the way children do with their cuddliest toys and blankets, but rather expanding our ability to experience gratefulness.
And how about recognizing the goodness of something as ordinary as the water that we consume? Although it’s difficult to conceive of such gritty poverty when one visits Ireland today, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt points out that for most of the 20th century, the majority of Irish citizens had neither drinking water nor toilets in their homes.
To be sure, so many exercises target gratitude “muscles” that there could be a risk of overdoing. But let's be honest, don't most of us err on the side of taking things for granted?
I realize there is a reluctance to try such methods. I understand that many people think they cannot change. And -- sorry to get sarcastic in an essay on goodness, but -- how convenient for those same people to say this, since that would nullify all of these suggestions before they were even tried. I admit that, when I thought of exercising to improve my ability to recognize good, I was skeptical. And then after I began, I was slow to recognize change, as I frequently am. But since incorporating some of these exercises into my daily regime, I’ve begun to see change and feel the impact within.
I admit, too, that I’ve come to have a favorite method for increasing my capacity to recognize good. I’ll share it with you next week. The process, if you want to join in, will require commitment from both you and those who occupy your most intimate circle. But the investment, I think, is almost guaranteed to pay off, with dividends.
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