I don’t remember being thankful very often when I was a kid. I remember wanting things – lots of things – all the time.
I wanted toy trucks and cap guns and Lionel trains and baseball mitts. I wanted army men and model planes and erector sets. I wanted everything I saw advertised for boys on television. And everything other kids at school had, including boxed lunches and meat sandwiches instead of peanut butter and jelly in a paper bag.
I wanted to live in a nice house instead of the broken-down place my seven siblings and I grew up in. I wanted the new bikes and new clothes and professional haircuts my schoolmates had.
I wanted, as I said, all kinds of things. But gratitude? I didn’t have much time for that.
I was thankful to Bruce Conger’s family for donating a box of his clothes to our family one Christmas. Bruce was the coolest dresser in 7th grade. I became, at least in my own mind, the coolest kid in 7th grade the following year when I wore his clothes to school. Tight, tight olive-green pants with creases so sharp they could cut you. Shiny black shoes with tips so pointed you could open a beer can with them. And sky blue cashmere socks. Oh, was I cool!
I was also thankful two years later when my godmother, Jean Kerr, gave me one half of a share of one of her plays. It wasn’t one of her big hits, but it was enough to buy me a brand-new pool cue that I used at the Rockville Centre Cue Club.
I was grateful, too, in my senior year, when, after having gotten caught in a riptide at Jones Beach and given up my life in an exhausting attempt to swim directly ashore, I was carried by the current around the jetty and back to safety. I had already lost my faith in religion at the time, but I was grateful. Very grateful.
Otherwise, as I said, I spent most of my emotional energy wanting things.
After high school, I was grateful that I wasn’t drafted into the Vietnam War. Someone from my local draft board called me up and told me I was to report for duty, but they never followed up on that call and I never heard from them again. I can only imagine that my file was lost. I still sometimes expect it to be found… and then find myself the oldest recruit in the army.
In college, I developed an appreciation for learning and learned to be grateful for the great teachers I had. Harriett Zinnes, who taught me something about poetry, and Lillian Feder, who taught me to love good writing, were two of the best.
Then, after college and graduate school, I spent two years in the Peace Corps. I remember sitting on my porch in Africa, watching the rain pour down on my plaster-coated mud house and thinking, “You may get rich one day but you’ll never live in a house that will give you more pleasure than this.”
I was grateful for that house – for having the privilege to live in it when so many of my students lived in shacks. And I was also grateful for my gratitude. I had begun to understand how good it feels.
When I returned to the States, a married man, I remember feeling grateful each time one of my sons was born. Grateful that they were all healthy. And I remember feeling grateful when, on Sundays, we would take the children on walks up and down 16th Street in Washington, DC to look at the stately mansions there. I was not envious of those elegant homes. Being able to see and appreciate them was enough.
In 1982, we moved to South Florida and I took a job with a small newsletter publishing company there. I felt lucky to have the job – running the editorial department – because it meant that I was on my way to achieving my longtime goal of becoming a writer.
But two years later, I had a change of heart. I switched my goal from writing to making money. And when I did that, I stopped being grateful.
It was an interesting experience. I was fired up about making money. And I spent all my emotional energy pursuing it. But, looking back now, it’s clear to me that I was once again preoccupied with wanting things. I wanted a higher income. I wanted money in the bank. I wanted a new car. And I wanted a mortgage-free home.
I’ve written a good deal about the tricks and techniques I used to acquire a lot of money during those years. But I never wrote about how ungrateful I was for the things that money bought me. I felt like I deserved them. And the moment I got something I wanted, I was thinking about the next thing I wanted.
When I turned 50, I realized that making wealth my number one goal had been a mistake. In doing so, I had learned a lot. But I had also lost a lot, not the least of which was my capacity for gratitude.
I am grateful now that I didn’t lose my soul completely during those wanting years. And, yes, I realize that it’s much easier to feel the way I now feel when you don’t have to worry about expenses. Still, I feel grateful that I was able to make that change.
Lest you think I am grateful only for soulful things, I readily admit to being grateful for material things too. I’m grateful for my 17-year-old NSX and my eight-year-old Ranger truck. I’m grateful for some of my clothes (those that make me feel good) and for my pool table (which I keep in my office) and to be living in a house that gives me as much pleasure as the mud house I lived in 30 years ago. (I was wrong when I thought that couldn’t be possible.)
But when K and I talk about how grateful we are, the same three things always top the list:
1. We are grateful that we and our children are alive.
2. We are grateful that we and our children are healthy.
3. We are grateful to have so many good friends.
And I am personally grateful for being able to spend most of my working hours writing – which was my first and most important lifetime goal – and especially grateful that ETR affords me 400,000 readers to write to!
What’s on your list?[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]