Back in May of 2008 I turned a journal about fatherhood into a blog. I called it a Life of Gratitude. The title captured the emotions I felt at the time, just over a year after beginning the journey of raising our first son, Elliott. Most days I felt like I had been given a new life quite different from the old one and it needed its own name. Like a Life of Gratitude. I wanted the blog to be an avenue to share gratitude, hoping that more people would experience the wave of contentment that had washed over my life. But a couple of things happened along the way that prevented me from doing that as well as I had envisioned.
One, the blog became much more about my life as a dad than gratitude, especially after we had our second son, Ian. The boys antics proved far more enjoyable to write about than gratitude. At some point over the last 5 years it became appropriate for me to ditch "A Life of Gratitude" in favor of a more appropriate title like "A Life of Chaos". But I didn't. I think I knew my stories were rooted in the sense of gratitude I felt about being a father, so mentally I tweaked the philosophy of the blog without tinkering with the name.
Second, and more important, I began to realize that what I was experiencing wasn't exactly gratitude. This wasn't an easy lesson for me to learn. But shortly after I began writing in the Life of Gratitude blog I decided I wanted to learn more about this whole gratitude thing. I was amazed that such a powerful force could take over my life without me knowing the first thing about it. That's when I stumbled upon a book called Thanks.
The book is written by Robert A. Emmons, Ph. D.; I have personally come to regard Dr. Emmons as the world's foremost expert on gratitude. And I'm not alone in that. I wasn't far into his book when he turned my life of gratitude upside down and shook me empty of most of the notions I'd ever had about what it meant to be grateful.
The problem came with his definition of gratitude. He said that he found it helpful to conceive of gratitude in two stages.
After reading Thanks, I read several other books and articles on gratitude. Most of them focused on the first stage Dr. Emmons talks about above. The majority of them sold gratitude as a pathway to happiness, that acknowledging how good we have it is the secret to being forever happy. I don't dispute the merit of that argument, but I think it seriously undersells the real value of gratitude - it's potential to transform the lives of others.
You see, if you believe stage 2, that "we could not be who we are in life without the contributions of others", and if you're at all like me, then you suddenly feel indebted. I either owe someone a thank you, or at the very least I feel suddenly more obligated to contribute to someone else's life. Otherwise, I'm left feeling, well, ungrateful.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about some meaningful thank you's in my life.
I remember receiving a phone call from a young man I worked with at Eckerd Youth Alternatives. I'll call him Jimmy. He was 12 years old when he came into our care. I was his counselor. He was a kid with tons of struggles in life, and handled zero of them well. The kid threatened to kill me daily and cussed at me more often than that. After spending a year with us, he graduated the program. Most kids did. The adult staff and the 9 other boys he lived with at camp all stood up at this ceremony and shared fond memories of their time with Jimmy. I'm not sure where any of them came up with those memories. They wished him well, and stated how sure they were he was going to be a great success in life.
I'm sure I lied and said something along those lines as well. But in reality, I knew the only success Jimmy was going to have in life was the possibility of parole attached to the multiple life sentences he was sure to collect within minutes of departing our watchful eyes.
Nearly 5 years later, I inexplicably answered a weekend phone call in the main office building - something I never did on the weekends. It was Jimmy. He told me he had been locked up in a detention center in Florida for the past year. But before I could think or say "I knew it", he told me this:
Chief Keith, (we were all called "Chief" at Eckerd), he said, I know you didn't think I'd make anything of my life when I left camp. And until now I really haven't. But I'm going to. I've spent the past year thinking about all the things you told me about life, and now I'm going to change. I just wanted to say thank you. Then he hung up.
That thank you has haunted me. Not because of who said it or how little faith I had in that kid, but because it is the starkest reminder I have of how few people I have thanked for helping me along the way.
Several years later I was sitting in my office pondering how ill-prepared I was to become a father. And since I was less than a few months away from becoming a father for the first time, this depressed me. Until that day, I had been able to convince myself that raising a child couldn't be any more difficult than tossing a ball or putting a worm on a hook. But the due date kept closing in, and as it did, I could hear a baby crying and I had no idea how to stop it. I began to see images of a boy who needed direction through a world I was far from figuring out myself. I began to wonder what I had gotten this innocent child into.
To distract myself I rifled through the day's mail. That's when I came across a letter from a young man I had worked with several years earlier. We'll call him Tommy. Unlike Jimmy, I always knew Tommy would be successful. I often wondered what he was even doing at camp. Most days I was sure my life was more screwed up and at-risk than his. As I ran my fingers through the envelope to open the letter, it struck me that it was stamped in Samoa.
Tommy began the letter by telling me he was working at a surf shop in Samoa. I wasn't surprised. Then he told me he heard that I was going to be a father. He said that was a great thing - that I was going to be a wonderful dad. He went on to tell me how I was always a great father figure to the guys in his group. And he said thank you.
I respected that from a far away place he would think enough of my contribution to his life to send a letter. More than that, though, I wondered how many people in my life may have needed some timely reassurance that I could have provided with a simple thank you - and they never got it.
I never worried about my ability to be a father again.
On December 18th, 2006, Elliott Cartwright arrived. In no simple fashion. In the words of Dr. Knelson, who delivered him, he was born with little more than a heartbeat. But Dr. Knelson pounded our baby's chest and shared breath with him for the next several hours like he was his own son. He saw life in a lifeless baby and willed our boy to see a world beyond that delivery room. I watched that man, old and graying, steal our boy from the determined arms of death and hand him to us like it was just another day at the office. Elliott spent a week in the NICU, but he came home with us. Today he is a healthy six year-old boy.
A couple of days after he delivered Elliott, Dr. Knelson walked into Katie's hospital room. The timing of his visit was a little unexpected and sent me scrambling for the speech I had rehearsed over and over in my head since witnessing the miracle he had performed. The one that allowed me to be called a father. My mouth got tired of waiting and without permission spit out the following words:
From across the room Dr. Knelson stared me straight in the eyes and said, "don't thank me, thank Him. I'm not good enough to do what happened in that delivery room."
With his response came two lessons:
One, I do not thank God nearly enough for the blessings in my life. Too often, because I don't think beyond the rush of emotion that comes from receiving an act of kindness, or a miracle, I fail to look for God's hand in the sometimes miraculous, but often quite simple moments that construct this astonishing life I live.
Two, God knows what he is doing in my life. He uses each of us to do his His will in our intermingled lives. And although I don't believe He is ever more glorified than when we thank Him personally for our connectedness, he doesn't need it. I imagine God feels like I feel when I watch one of our boys do something kind for the other that I have secretly directed. And the other, completely unaware that I've had a hand in the act, thanks his brother. I always feel the joy of that thanks as if it is directed at me. I believe God celebrates each and every time we thank someone for the contributions they have made to our lives.
I remember sitting down at my desk and writing out a thank you note to an old high school football coach. It surprised me that I was doing so. Until I began taking a mental inventory of the people who had made contributions to my life that influenced who I was to that day, I hadn't thought much about him. That's because life had lulled me into a belief that I was personally responsible for the good in my life.
I was thanking him for the day he piled the entire team into the backs of a herd of pick up trucks and drove us out the country roads that surrounded our school until we were 10 miles or so from where we left. He then told us to get out and run home. This was troubling. I didn't know how to get home, and I knew there was no way I was keeping up with my teammates who were sprinting away like they were they only ones who did.
I made it home. I ran sprints after practice for a month or so because I didn't make it as fast as coach wanted me to, but I made it. Many years later I would embark on a career working with at-risk youth. Many times these kids would get upset with me because I was asking them to do things they felt were impossible to achieve. I grew fond of telling them that it's not the people who are asking you to do the impossible you need to be upset with, but the people who aren't asking you to do anything at all - because that's exactly what those people believe you're capable of.
When I finished the note to coach, I began to search the internet for his address. I hadn't talked to him in years so I had no idea where I'd find him, but I was determined to get him this note. I suppose that's what hurt the most when my search turned up that he had died of cancer several years earlier. He would never receive my thanks. He would never hear me admit that what I once called the dumbest thing I had ever heard a coach ask his players to do clung to me long enough to become a valuable life lesson.
Unfortunately, he also became the center of the lesson that we don't have forever to tell people thank you.
I hope this blog can now become an opportunity for me to share the importance of gratitude. Real gratitude. Oh, I'll still be sharing stories about being a dad; I can't help myself. But every once in awhile I hope to share a thank you or two.