The Foundations of Gratitude

Our Legendary Venetian Holiday

Some years ago, in a distant, halcyon past redolent of youthful vigor and young love, I packed my bags and boarded a plane bound for Venice. For me, La Serenissima wasn’t just a vacation destination. It was where I would see my wife for the first time in six months, and where we would spend an enchanted week of culture, learning, and most importantly togetherness. Because while I had been in the United States, working a normal job and living in a normal suburb, she had been dodging bullets and death threats in one of the Middle East’s most unstable countries, working in decidedly un-normal conditions. When an opportunity came up for her to get away for a short vacation, we decided to meet in the middle; and after considering a number of worthy candidates—Paris, Vienna, Rome—we settled on as tranquil an environment as we could find, to form the greatest possible contrast with her quotidian reality. The Most Serene City fit the bill perfectly.

And so we did—I arrived at the airport in Venice just hours before she did, met her at arrivals with an enormous smile and commensurate hug, and swept her off to the apartment that I had pre-arranged for us on the Giudecca. The week was pure magic—we marveled at the art in the Doge’s palace and the Basilica di San Marco, not to mention in a dozen other palazzi all over the city; the city itself was a museum for an architecture lover like her, with the crazy conglomeration of Byzantine and Renaissance façades looking out onto the canals. We rode the vaporetti up and down the Grand Canal, under the stately stone bridges with their intricate reliefs and sordid histories; we rode them around the city’s Medieval walls, erected to defend against incursions by Germanic chieftans, Ottoman sultans, and Florentine dukes; we crossed the waters further afield to Murano, where intricate glasswork from Venetian artisans has been refracting sunlight into beautiful displays for nearly a thousand years. Dressed in our stateliest, we took in a symphony in the city’s pre-Napoleonic grand concert hall; when we weren’t being nearly so cultured we challenged ourselves to eat as many flavors of the city’s gelato as humanly possible. And all the while we were together, blissfully happy to have erased—at least temporarily—the ten time zones that had separated us for the past year.

That vacation was legendary. It has a permanent aura, a golden frame, that enshrines it as one of the Best Times of My Life. I look back on pictures, or simply recall moments in my mind, and the joy that I felt then returns to me. It has been over five years since then, and I believe that my wife and I were acting out an Italian love story without equal in all the legends and mythology of that inventive country.

What do I not remember about that trip? Unless we are specifically recalling it, I do not remember how the electricity in our apartment went out one night, leaving us stranded in darkness, without a stove to cook on and without air conditioning to make the hot Venetian summer nights bearable. I do not remember how I walked across the Giudecca to buy a pizza that night, and asked them to light a candle for me, as we had no matches and the stores were closed, and how I carefully protected that flame for my entire transit of the island, until as I stood on my doorstep a sudden gust of wind snuffed out our hopes for evening light. I also don’t remember how, with the windows open to make the hot air bearable, we both ended up bitten by a small army of mosquitos, or how all this went on for several days because we couldn’t get hold of the landlord. (For the record: someone eventually left the circuit breaker room unlocked and unattended one morning, and I stole in and restored modernity to our dwelling.) I also generally don’t remember how, the very night that we attended the symphony in our best clothing and most attractive—read: uncomfortable—shoes, the vaporetto drivers went on strike and left us with a mile-and-a-half walk home over quaint and uneven cobblestone, which was so punishing on my wife’s feet that we could walk nowhere the next day. Or how the only possible flights that we could take out of Venice at the end of the week were at five in the morning, meaning that we were waiting for the airport bus on the side of the road at two o’clock on our last night. And all this says nothing of a food “adventure” or two.

Emotional filtering and our outlook on life

What gives? Why do I not remember the painful, the less-than-perfect, parts of that vacation? At first, you might think it was because, heck, I was in Venice! But I’ve been on vacations before where things also did not go well, and I remember that they didn’t go well. But this was different: I wasn’t there to pretend I was cultured, or to hit the night life—really, I could have been not in Venice at all—but I was there to see my new wife, and it had been a long time, and that was the most important thing. And that went perfectly. I showed up. She showed up. Nothing else was really necessary.

Our brains tend to filter, and my brain filters the mild (in retrospect) inconveniences out of the overwhelming success of the trip at large. There is no need for me to dwell on the propensity of the Italians to strike, or my general distaste for mosquitoes, or any of the other failings of circumstance that were part of the entire tapestry of our vacation. A few misplaced brushstrokes do not mar the masterpiece. I believe that our brains do this sort of filtering automatically, based upon our goals with respect to the memories. Do I want to remember how painful it was to get my graduate degree? Then I remember the late nights in the lab, the difficult discussions with my thesis advisor, the feeling of uncertainty and drift that pervaded my relationship to my work. Or do I want to remember the joys of my sojourn at one of the nation’s best (and most beautiful) universities? Then I remember the blooming of the dogwoods in the spring, the large cohort of friends that I made, the delight of learning new things, and the circumstances of meeting my future wife. I choose which set of memories to dwell on. I choose whether it was a good or a bad time.

How we choose to approach our memories is an indicator of how we view our lives—if we adopt a narrative of victimization, we are sure to see persecution all around; if a narrative of misfortune, we will look back to see poor choices and an endless stream of bad circumstance. But if our life narrative is one of advancement, joy, and triumph, then that is what we will see in the flow of our memories.

Some people have more misfortune than most, and some have more triumph than most. Objective differences in our lives exist and are important. But those objective differences are usually not the things that drive our personal narratives. Some incredibly successful people are incredibly depressed, and many that our world would consider most misfortunate are some of its happiest people. I think we’ve all heard the stories of the jaded Westerner visiting a poor country and making observations of the happiness found among the poor of the place. Poverty or wealth have little to do with happiness—this much is substantiated scientifically. Instead it’s a set of conscious choices that pervade our subconscious approach to life.

Translating to now

If all of the foregoing is relevant to memories, then it is also relevant to our experience of the present. Am I happy with my life right now? The answer in large part is determined by what I fixate on. For example, I spent just enough time traveling for work in the State of New York this year that I’m required to file an income tax return there, despite having never lived there or having any connection whatsoever with the place. That’s going to suck a bunch of hours out of my life during Spring 2016 as I figure out how to fill out yet another set of forms, along with my regular state and federal tax forms. I hate paperwork.

On the other hand, I had a job that was mostly interesting, challenging, and that advanced the frontiers of science during 2015. I got to visit my grandmother’s childhood home outside of Buffalo and Niagara Falls during my weekends in New York. I even managed to swing an anniversary trip to New York City with my wife as a result of the traveling. And the company topped off my income to cover the extra expense of New York taxes.

So what am I going to focus on? The drag of filling out some extra paperwork? Or the awesomeness that surrounded and resulted from my circumstance? I choose to be positive.

And this, I believe, is the definition of gratitude: to recognize the good in life, and to give it priority over the bad. It’s not a function of the good-to-bad ratio. That can be quite small, and a person can still be grateful. It’s a function of the amount of attention given to the good compared with attention focused on the bad. While that’s not necessarily an easy mental discipline, it nevertheless is a discipline. A choice to be made.

So file the bad things in life away into a mental “to-do” folder, and deal with them expeditiously. Then celebrate the good and give it center stage. Developing gratitude for the blessings in life, despite whatever else might be there, is one of the essential components of Jailbreak. It’s the shovel with which the escape tunnel is dug.

For those in the US, happy Thanksgiving!

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