It’s not yet eight o’clock in the morning as I write this, and so far, my day has gotten off to a completely ordinary start. I woke up a little after six, read for a few minutes, stumbled into the kitchen to start my coffee, did some basic exercises while I waited for it to brew, drank my coffee while listening to University of Toronto professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson lecture on the “Maps of Meaning” on YouTube.
I’ve just gotten into Peterson lately; he strikes me as a bit of a modern day Joseph Campbell with some interesting things to say. It’s clear that his worldview is more conservative than mine, so I can’t say I agree 100% with every word that he says, but I find his perspective compelling and worth listening to. I found him on a Jocko Willink podcast, in which his discussion of Good and Evil really sparked my imagination and got me to thinking.
In the lecture I was listening to this morning, Peterson mentioned something about “being alert to the miracle of our existence” (which I think I’ve paraphrased but it’s close enough).
“He’s right,” I thought. “My daily existence is nothing short of miraculous.”
Today is the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, and while my girlfriend decries the over-simplification and oppression of indigenous people that this holiday represents — and I don’t necessarily disagree with her — I prefer to think about gratitude. The execution of Thanksgiving seems somewhat lacking — it seems for most people to mainly be about gorging ourselves, watching football, and wracking up credit card debt on Black Friday. But the *concept* of Thanksgiving, which to me is setting aside an entire day in which we focus upon gratitude, is really worth taking note of.
In fact, *every* day should be a day in which we should focus on gratitude.
We could complain about the Trump administration (I admit that I’ve done that once already this morning), bemoan the increasingly dangerous problem of economic inequality or the wretched state of the American healthcare system, but if we’re going to do that, we should also at least pause for a moment to appreciate, to “be alert to”, the miracle of our existence.
That’s what the rest of this post is about — looking at the ordinary things most of us do every morning and remembering that even the most ordinary things are actually extraordinary, recognizing that the most ordinary parts of modern existence are miraculous and should be appreciated as such.
If we hold that view close to our heart, how much more could we appreciate what we have and stop complaining about things that aren’t actually that problematic in the first place?
1. You woke up this morning.
Hearing Peterson say “being alert to the miracle of my existence” made me start thinking about the incredible things that had already happened in my day.
For starters, I woke up.
In Buddhism, we say that only one breath separates this life from the next, and every morning when we wake up, we should pause to admire the fact that our breath continued through the night, keeping us alive to see another day. It might seem silly, but it’s true. I am sure that many people in this big ol’ world went to bed last night but didn’t wake up this morning. So start your gratitude with the fact that you woke up this morning.
You have another day in which to make your life meaningful and beneficial.
2. You woke up this morning *in a bed*.
It’s the end of November, and even in the Deep South where I live, it’s starting to get cold outside. Out of the seven+ billion souls on this planet, there are so many who didn’t wake up with a roof over their heads or in a bed. They woke up on a sidewalk, or on a bench, or on the dirt floor of a grass hut. I think about all the homeless people living in places like New York City or my former home of Washington, DC, and I consider how brutal it must be to sleep on concrete at this time of year, with only a thin layer of cardboard between you and a cold ground that wants to vampire all the warmth out of your body.
But not you. If you’re reading this post, I’d say there’s about a 99% chance you woke up inside this morning, on a (relatively) comfortable bed. You are so lucky; take a moment to appreciate that.
3. You probably have working plumbing.
There’s also a 99% chance that when you “used the facilities” this morning, you flushed the toilet and didn’t have to deal with the waste products of your body anymore. The plumbing system magically transported the waste away, using principles you probably only barely understand, taking your dirty water to a place you’re only vaguely aware of.
Minutes later, when you filled the coffee pot with water or poured yourself your first glass of water for the day, you probably just lifted a lever or twisted a knob, and — BEHOLD! — potable water came out of the tap. And if you’re a water snob who won’t drink from the tap, you got your water from a fancy filtration system or a water cooler.
Either way, you didn’t have to hike ten miles to a river and back, carrying a plastic jug on your head with water that you’ll later need to boil. Appreciate that.
4. You have food in the fridge / pantry.
If you’re a breakfast eater, you likely opened a refrigerator this morning (a miracle device in and of itself), pulled out some food, and either ate it immediately or cooked it in a microwave (miracle) or on a stovetop (miracle).
Also, you *have* food. In a house / apartment.
You *have* a house / apartment in which you have food.
5. You own a supercomputer.
The early supercomputers IBM sold to NASA (as I was reminded of recently in the movie Hidden Figures) in the 60s had less computing power than our modern toasters. And most of you reading this, if not all of you, have a supercomputer that fits in your pocket — your smartphone.
I heard something great a while back, something a friend had read on a tech blog and then paraphrased to me:
We have a device that fits in our pocket that connects us to the entirety of human knowledge. And we use it mainly to look at cat memes and argue with people.
Your problems are not that big.
When you start thinking like this, something should hopefully happen within your mind. Some lightbulb should go off and you should be saying to yourself, “You know what? My problems are really not that significant. I have a life that is mostly miraculous, and I am taking those miracles almost entirely for granted.”
In fact, your biggest problems probably come from living inside a miracle and taking it utterly for granted.
Obesity. Mass shootings. Internet porn. Terrorism. Donald Trump’s Twitter account. Russian fake news. Candy Crush. Housing inflation. Texting while driving. The break-neck speed of modern life.
It would seem that the very technology that has made our lives so comfortable, so much easier than the previous million years or so of human existence, is also gradually destroying us. To quote Dr. Peterson: “Too much freedom equals chaos.”
But I don’t know. I’m not a Luddite and I don’t believe that technology is bad and we should all go back to a communist hunter-gatherer society. I really don’t think modern comforts and modern abundance are the real problems; I think it’s the fact that we have almost no gratitude for what we have. Most of us (including me) don’t wake up thinking, “My gosh. I woke up *again* this morning. In a bed. With a roof over my head. To the tune coming out of my supercomputer. And when I turned on the tap, clean water came out. Miracle after miracle!”
No, we just think, “Why do I have to wait a full sixty seconds for the water to warm up?” Grump, grump. Grouch, grouch.
And so we overindulge because overindulgence seems to be our God-given right, and then blame food corporations and advertising agencies for our weight problem, we blame corrupt politicians for our political apathy, we blame Facebook for our procrastination habits, we blame energy companies for our air pollution.
Is our abundance killing us? Maybe what’s killing us is remembering perspective — the perspective of gratitude to say, “Wow. This is amazing.”
Maybe we need to take back the mantle of personal responsibility and Use Our Powers for Good and Not Evil.
For example, maybe it’s time to start using Facebook to connect with people instead of criticize them and pass along cat memes. Maybe it’s time to start using the cornucopia of food at the grocery store to buy fresh fruits and vegetables instead of Pop Tarts. Maybe it’s time to vote in the midterm elections.
What’s your own excuse? Why do you keep forgetting to be alert to the miracle of modern existence, focusing on everything that’s wrong with your life instead of all the things that are amazing? That’s the question I’m asking myself today; that’s the resolution I’m focusing on — “Be alert to the miracle of your existence.”
And on that note…
I want to leave you with a clip from Louis CK. It’s titled “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” (Yes, yes, I know, Louis CK an evil #MeToo sexual harrasser that we should all condemn and abandon, but he still has some good insights to share in his comedy. I’m not endorsing him or condoning his actions by sharing this clip, but I will say this: At least he admitted he was wrong for what he did and immediately apologized. He could’ve chosen to do what a gazillion other men have done and are doing, which is to just deny, deny, deny and blame their victims.)