At the beginning of this month, I traveled to western Massachusetts to do an accreditation visit for a public liberal arts college there. Accreditation is a big deal for any college or university. It is how our sector of the education world regulates itself, keeps on the path to improvement and innovation, and shows compliance with all sorts of government mandates. Campuses take it seriously.
The visit started on Sunday night with a reception for me and my eight colleagues who were there to study the campus. Representatives of the students, faculty and staff, the board of trustees, and various community representatives, were all on hand to greet us. I had barely gotten my coat off when I was grabbed by a strange woman and thoroughly hugged and kissed. Wow, I thought, this visit is going to be pretty good!
Who was this mystery woman? A philosophy student of mine from 1974. She’d gone on after graduating from Southeastern Massachusetts University to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, and she’d been teaching at this place I was now visiting for 28 years. An actual successful student from long ago. We had a fine time reminiscing about other colleagues who had been her teachers, and about her subsequent career. I got goose-bumps. This is the kind of long-term feedback that teachers rarely get. I was so grateful. I am sure that that first encounter with my former student made the whole visit extra-special, even though it was darn cold out there in the hills.
I have just finished composing, editing and compiling the 40-odd-page report from that accreditation visit. I am grateful to be done with it; my brain is fried!
Since this is Thanksgiving season, gratitude is appropriate. Recipes are also appropriate. So here is my Thanksgiving gratitude recipe for happiness. It actually works year-round. Whenever you need it, just sit quietly for a minute and then start listing all the things you are grateful for. Everything, no matter how big or how small.
OK, we’ll practice:
I am grateful that I had oatmeal for breakfast; that I had at least one happy and successful student; that I have relatives who come only at Thanksgiving; that I live in Maine; that the sun is out today; that I myself had a few inspiring teachers; that I had parents who thought I was special; that I have a family; that I have a job; that I lived to see men land on the Moon.
I am grateful for Patrick O’Brian and all the other authors who have taught me more about life than I could ever have imagined by myself; and so on.
Practice at this and the list will get longer every time. Never mind the footnotes: that you ran out of breakfast bananas; that the students are often hard cases; that it rained yesterday and it’s going to be winter in Maine; that the job can be frustrating; that the relatives act just like the ones at the Passover Seder in Marjorie Morningstar; that we haven’t yet gone to Mars and beyond. This is supposed to be gratitude here.
Footnotes are easy to get lost in, but they are not the story, although sometimes (as in “A Midwife’s Tale” by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, or Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”) footnotes actually are where the story is lurking. (You can tell my brain is fried when I digress into literary blathering.)
But the gratitude story is not that kind of story. The gratitude story can run for a long time just by acknowledging the basic stuff of our lives. It’s a good happiness recipe. So keep making that list, and Happy Thanksgiving!
Theodora J. Kalikow is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.