Torah Musings: Appreciation, Part 2


Appreciation, Part 2

Sarah Pachter

In our last issue, I wrote about becoming happier with less and expounded on how to prevent ourselves from becoming numb to pleasurable experiences. This article delineates how we can lower that bar of appreciation so more events, items, and people can make it over, and thus come to our attention.

G-d, in His ultimate wisdom and kindness, gives us an opportunity to express gratitude daily through a multitude of blessings. However, I would like to focus our attention specifically on Modeh Ani, the prayer which we recite upon awakening.

For most people, the first thought in the early morning is one of scarcity. Although we may not actually chant (or consciously think of) the word, many of us do begin the day with one of the following thoughts:

I’m so tired—I didn’t get ENOUGH sleep.

Ugh…I have so much to do today, I just don’t have enough TIME.

Modeh Ani helps change that paradigm.

I’m grateful that I have life, I have SO MUCH.

This prayer doesn’t just mean, I thank you; it actually means I gratefully thank you! The Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 1:1 explains that we should recite the Modeh Ani with excitement and fervor. We are meant to awaken in the morning with energy like a lion, ready to spring onto its prey.

We are supposed to awaken ready to start the new day of adventure!

I’m sure you’re thinking: Adventure? That’s not exactly what I’m thinking about when I hear the alarm clock in the morning. What I’m really thinking is, “Can’t I just hit the snooze button and delay this adventure for just a few more hours? Why does G-d care if I say it with excitement or not?”

The following story answers that question beautifully. My student, Danielle, shared with me that her friend, Jennifer, was begging to borrow a pair of her designer shoes. Although initially reluctant, Danielle relented because she knew that Jennifer was trying to impress her date, and her shoes would work perfectly.

On Thursday night, Jennifer and Jon went out. Danielle waited up to hear from her friend post-date, but alas, no such luck. Days passed, and Jennifer was still MIA. The following week, Jennifer swung by Danielle’s unapologetically to drop off her shoes.

Immediately, Jennifer started idolizing Jon. “Jon is so cute, sweet, smart, and wonderful!”

As she dropped the shoes carelessly by the door, Danielle thought she noticed scuff marks on them that weren’t previously there.

Hmm, maybe this is why Jennifer was unreachable and took so long to return them, Danielle mused to herself.

“Ahem. Did the shoes work out?” Danielle asked while waiting for an apology, or at least some gratitude for the favor.

“Yeah, thanks. Gotta go, bye!” And that was it. Jessica scurried off.

Danielle slowly closed the door behind her friend, shell-shocked.

“Sarah,” she told me afterward, “I had lent her my most expensive pair of shoes, and not only did she scuff them, she hardly even eked out a ‘thank you.’ The nerve!”

Understandably, Danielle was upset, and yet, we do this shoe-borrowing thing to Hashem all the time. G-d lends us this beautiful, designer, priceless soul—worth far more than any shoe, no matter how many months it took the designer to determine the heel’s height and thickness.

One’s neshamah is an ethereal soul that is completely clean and pure. Yet, we spend our days living imperfectly (to say the least). At night we return it to Hashem, slightly stained and battered from our regular mistakes. Then, we groggily wake up in the morning, stifle a yawn, and with our eyes half-closed, we—myself included—mumble Modeh Ani under our breath.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting we wake up singing Modeh Ani Broadway-style. It is understandably difficult to wake up in the morning, energized and truly excited for the new day ahead. However, we must strive to recognize that every minute of life is a gift from Hashem, a precious loan. It is far too short to take our lives for granted, especially during these first few minutes in the morning.

It is possible (read: likely) that despite seeing this article, we will continue to have trouble waking up with fervor. Therefore, I would like to share with you the most powerful technique that I have in my toolbox to elicit appreciation and joy. It can be started TODAY, as soon as right now! I learned about this exercise fifteen years ago, and have used it ever since.

It’s called… drumroll please….

A gratitude journal.

Simple, right? A gratitude journal is all about mastering the art of observing our inner dialogue and the beautiful life around you. Log the promotion you just received. Jot down the rich color of the grass—yes, YOUR grass, not your neighbor’s—or the stunning sunset outside your child’s bedroom window that you usually don’t look at when you brush her hair after bath time. Noting small nuances in this manner prevents us from becoming numb, and then we can actually feel joy when it hits.

To practice this concept in a convenient way, I personally maintain a Google document with a dear friend, as well as one with my husband. Finding someone to share gratitude with creates accountability and continuity.

There are other fringe benefits to gratitude journals as well. When my daughter was just days old, she was rushed to the NICU. To be honest, I didn’t know if she would live or die at that time, and it was terrifying. I wasn’t allowed to hold her or even touch her. While standing by her incubator, I would sometimes pray with fervor, and other times I was too numb to speak. But you can bet I kept up the gratitude log for the duration of that difficult period.

I remember sitting there one morning, unsure of what to write. I was so sad about my baby’s situation that I struggled to find something to thank G-d for. Completely broken down, I ultimately found myself writing these words:

Thank You, G-d, for allowing me to hold this pen and write this sentence.

Because I logged the simplest of moments each day during that trying time, I can now, four years later, look back at my entries and see that even in the darkest of days, there are glimmers of light. That daily dose of Vitamin G lowers our appreciation threshold and keeps us happy, not only in the moment, but long afterwards.

One may think that expressing gratitude over the small nuances of life is simple pursuit reserved for those with lesser intelligence. However, having the capacity to notice the positive nuances of life is a skill acquired by a select few who have had enough practice.

Imagine someone looking at a masterpiece by Van Gogh. A novice may not have the capacity to recognize the nuances Van Gogh’s technique. But an artist can reflect upon many deeper levels to that piece, adding additional pleasure to their viewing.

And so too with gratitude. When we are a skilled gratitude-giver, we start to recognize the nuances of life, which makes gives us a much richer existence.

Here’s one entry to start your gratitude journal off:

Thank You, G-d, for this keyboard, for Google docs, and for fabulous friends who ensure I’m taking my daily Vitamin G.

What will your next entry read?