Thursday, 4 July 2013

Just be grateful

When I was young and complaining about something, my parents were fond of saying I should be grateful for what I had and not be too greedy or demanding. There were many people in the world with a lot less, they would point out.

Well, for a while I accepted that. It seemed a valid argument. It smacked of common sense, practicality and realism. I wouldn't be carried away by high-flown ideals and impossible dreams.

At some point however, I started to question that rather blinkered view. I started to ask myself, what exactly is wrong with wanting more? What is wrong with aiming for something bigger and better? And so what if other people have a lot less? Won't that always be the case, whatever I happen to have?

I think I first seriously questioned the "settle for what you've got" approach when I was living in a scummy London bedsit while all around me were rich professionals in luxury mansions. How could it be in any way smart to accept such a dreary hovel rather than looking for a decent, comfortable home? Or the sort of income that would make that possible? Or the sort of job that would push up my income?

Working as a bookseller, I questioned the "just be grateful" line again. I didn't see why poor working conditions and low wages should be cheerfully adjusted to rather than challenged. So I became a trade union member and pushed for improvements.

At the end of the day settling for what you've got means accepting the second-rate and imperfect and pretending it's better than it is. It means never wanting to push the boundaries of your life and your abilities. It means closing down your imagination and making do with what's in front of you.

Why is wanting more seen as greedy and demanding? Isn't it a natural human desire to enhance, to embellish, to upgrade? How else does civilisation progress?

Of course my parents' real motive for discouraging "greed" was probably their own limited income and inability to meet my expensive whims. But it became an entrenched belief that permeated my thinking well into adult life. An unfortunate consequence.

30 comments:

John Gray said...

My grandfather always said " aspire but don't be greedy"

Nick said...

John: I guess that begs the question of when aspiring becomes greed. When wanting a little extra becomes wanting too much. Which can be hard to define.

Secret Agent Woman said...

There's nothing wrong with wanting things or wanting conditions to be better, but greed is a sure path to unhappiness. Because it's endles - there's always the next bigger house, faster car, and so on - and there isn't a "thing" in this world that will bring you lasting joy. All the research on happiness shows that wanting what you have and practicing gratitude make you happier. So your parents may not have known the science behind it, but they were on to something.

grannymar said...

I remember the refrain that I should be grateful for what I had. We were also told not to boast about our achievements!

The only 'thing' I ever wished for was a sewing machine, but had to wait until I finish school at eighteen years of age, in case having a machine distracted me from my school work.

John Gray said...

I had a boyfriend who always had the need to aspire to better things.... A bigger house, a better job, a nicer car, more money, a big holiday

He was a fuckwit and unhappy

Nick said...

Agent: As I said to John, it's hard to say where wanting ends and greed begins. Though I guess one sure sign is finding fresh needs the moment you've acquired anything new. And I do agree that appreciating what you already have is happiness-inducing.

Nick said...

Grannymar: Ah, the deferred pleasure of the sewing machine! You don't hear much about deferred pleasure these days....

John: That definitely sounds like a fixation on possessions at the expense of close relationships.

Jay at The Depp Effect said...

I think it's like many of these old maxims. Sure, part of the reason must have been rooted in the inability of our parents to provide more, and the desire for us to be content rather than suffer from envy or resentment, but I think it goes deeper than that.

I think that often it's propaganda, swallowed by our parents and grandparents, and put about with the intention to keep certain classes of society from 'getting above themselves'. It may date back to before WW2 when society was based on a servant class which served the upper classes, and all of us being provided with goods and services by the working class. If there were no working class there'd be no infrastructure, and if there were too few servants, the rich might have to bestir themselves to do some work!

Bijoux said...

Wanting more often leads to progress in society. I don't see it as a negative.

Nick said...

Jay: I think you're right that it's partly about keeping the lower orders in their place. If everyone was rich and pampered and bone-idle, who would hand me my soup spoon?

Bijoux: True, wanting more can lead to all sorts of new advances and benefits.

Ursula said...

Agree with most your contributors. Greed is shite. A bottomless hole never to be filled. Lucky the minimalists among us. Even the rich minimalists.

Maybe you need to give your parents a little bit of slack on this one. Say, what you wanted involved money they might not have had to indulge you. That's not a particularly great position to be in as a parent. So, to sweeten it, to both them and you, they told you to be content with what you have. I think it excellent advice.

Even better to think of how to make MORE of what you DO have. By way of example: I currently can't afford to buy cut flowers (one of my great pleasures and luxuries). So, I will pick some of those tiny daisies on my way through the city's open spaces, put their little friendly yellow faces in an equally small vase, and, guess what, as much as I love some of those £1.00 a stem beauties, those daisies make me just as happy. And I hope those daisies are happy too to be truly appreciated instead of just be walked past. You may dry your tears now at this soppy story. True as it is.

However, and maybe that is what you were alluding to: Being happy with your (current) lot does not mean to not have aspirations. As long as we still appreciate the daisy when we are rich enough to buy the whole flower shop.

U

Nick said...

Ursula: Actually I'm very much a mixture of wanting more and settling for what I have. In fact I'm so good at appreciating my existing possessions that Jenny frequently has to nudge me into new purchases. I totally agree, roadside daisies can be just as appealing as shop-bought flowers.

So yes, there's something to be said for my parents' attitude, even if it was a cover for cash shortages. The danger is that it can easily turn into stingy unadventurousness.

Wisewebwoman said...

I like the old adage of 'be careful what you wish for'.

Material possessions? I've gone the route, the happiest times I recall were when my life was uncomplicated by possessions and a single violet in a jam jar gave me great happiness.

Your parents were on to something, though the transmission of the sentiment was based on squashing your dreams (an more truly, I suspect, their own).

I like to have dreams that don't involve money, so my inner life was always richer. Still is, and my life is the simplest it's ever been.

And yes, I'm very grateful.

XO
WWW

Rummuser said...

If we carry your grown up's view to its logical conclusion, we must not object to disparities in income and the modern phenomenon of unlevel playing fields. We must all strive and make what best we can and in the process others get trampled down, too bad.

The basic urge to progress should not come in the way of political philosophy.

These are the contradictions, that one has to address when one imagines one's own lot when compared to some one else's. There is no one answer to that question.

The basic urge to progress should not come in the way of political philosophy.

Nick said...

www: Indeed, material possessions are a very unreliable route to happiness. Sometimes they give great pleasure, sometimes they're instantly disappointing. A violet in a jam jar may give just as much pleasure as a wide-screen TV.

Nick said...

Ramana: Well, here's my own contradiction. I may say it's okay to want more, but wanting more and more money I do object to if it means other people getting less and less money and not having a decent quality of life.

Cheerful Monk said...

My guess is when people aren't grateful for what they already have, they won't be happy when they get more. That doesn't mean not working for things. Earnie Larsen: "There are few things more wonderful than knowing where you want to go and being on the path to getting there." What a waste of a life not to enjoy the process.

bonsaimum said...

I know people who are very well off but don't feel satisfied with life. More is not always better.The social media have a lot to answer for. They portray success as lots of money, so if you are poor or struggling, you are therefore a failure. Success comes in many guises and not everything is measured in possessions or wads of cash. Just look at Hollywood.

Nick said...

Jean: I think that's a fair assumption. And of course many people want to have more without having to work for it. Which doesn't get them very far.

Bonsaimum: I think a lot of people still believe wealth and fame would make them blissfully happy. If they took a closer look at the lives of the wealthy they might realise that's a very dumb idea.

kylie said...

there is an insane amount of contradiction here, i dont think you know what you think, i also think it's another thinly veiled shot at your parents.

you know what nick? my parents drive me utterly nuts and i have to work hard to overcome some of the little oddities they passed to me but they did the best they could, given their own level of enlightenment and people can only do their best with good intentions so i make an effort to forgive them and forgiveness means never raising the issue again

Nick said...

Kylie: Yes, I hold my hand up, I'm full of contradictions! Including a lot of unresolved contradictions....

I'm not sure it's either a shot or a thinly-veiled shot. I do say that my parents weren't very well off, which partly explains their attitude.

So what do I actually think? I think being content with what you've got is okay up to a point, but aspirations are necessary as well - as long as they don't turn into naked greed. Er, how's that?

And yes, I guess my parents did the best they could, wincingly inadequate though it was in hindsight....

Nick said...

And by the way, Kylie, I do like your refreshingly honest comments! You tell it like it is and that does me a power of good.

kylie said...

that one was my harshest ever! you're a good sport nick

Nick said...

And you're a good friend, Kylie. I know you're just being frank and not malicious.

I think my attitude to parents is (a) it's okay to blame them for fostering negative attitudes and behaviour that hold you back as an adult but (b) once you're an adult it's up to you to try and change those attitudes and make the most of your life.

Leah said...

I think I'm more troubled here, as I often am, by the myriad responses here that 'fess up to no base instincts, greed, etc. Are all your commenters always so pure of heart and motive and desire? REALLY? Often when I visit your blog and read the comments, I come away feeling like a walking bacchanal. I liked your post a lot, and I don't think it was really about material possessions at all.

But since everyone is discussing greed, and their own admirable lack of it, I will step in to say that I fantasize about money ALL the time. I want it. I do. I want to be rich. I am greedy. And I know I would enjoy it very very much.

Nick said...

Leah: Yes, how many people are really as pure of heart as they make out? Only a very few, in my experience. We all have base instincts deep-down.

No, my post wasn't about material possessions so much as aspiring for something better, be that aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, financial or whatever.

That's very honest of you, to admit you seriously want lots of money! I could do with a bit more money to feel secure in my old age, but apart from that I'm happy with very modest pleasures like books and music.

Ursula said...

Sorry. Both you, Leah, in your comment, and Nick in his response to you, are slightly disingenuous to the other commentators. First of all Nick did specifically indicate dissatisfaction with lack of his parents' financial funds and - open to interpretation - his lot in later life.

Secondly, all his readers did was trying to give him some comfort. I dare say, Leah, and please do look no further than my reference to daisies and flower shops, that all of us would admit to wishing for abundance.

So please do take your own moral high ground, dig a hole, plant a tree and hope that it'll bear gold. Should you wish to share your good fortune with others I am sure Nick will supply you with our various email addresses.

Good luck to you, good luck to Nick, good luck to all his readers, and I'll just become the next Bond Girl,

U

Nick said...

Ursula: No, I wasn't dissatisfied with my parents' lack of money, which was unavoidable, more with their attitude that I should be grateful for what I had.

I wasn't looking for comfort so much as an understanding of how I saw things and my parents' rather one-sided views.

And where is the moral high ground? On the contrary, Leah and I were both saying that we have base instincts and are not at all pure of heart.

Oh, and I look forward to seeing you as the next Bond girl!!

Jenny Woolf said...

Think it might be a matter of settling for what you need, and being grateful you have it. I can't think personally of anything more awful than endlessly rushing around trying to get more or be better, but it has taken me some years to realise that.

Nick said...

Jenny: I think settling for what you need is a bit limiting. Going for what you want is okay too, as long as it doesn't morph into insane greed and accumulation. But yes, why rush around gathering new things when you could just sit back and relax?