Choosing Gratitude

One of my many talents is the ability to be dissatisfied in the midst of astonishing abundance. Case in point: last weekend’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

In years past, you called the hermitage for a reservation, and they assigned you a room. Now, with their new online reservation system, you choose your own room. That’s where the trouble began.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a tree partially blocking my view of the ocean. I started to picture how superior the views farther down the line must be and to wish I had chosen differently.

Allow me to clarify exactly how ridiculous this reaction was. The hermitage overlooks the Big Sur coastline, some of the most dramatic in the world. Every room opens onto a vista—in reality, you could see a tree when you looked at the ocean; it would have taken a forest to block the view.

Luckily, I heard myself being ridiculous and did not spend the weekend resenting that beautiful place. I did, however, begin to understand why monastics willingly give up many of their choices. When the rooms were assigned, I had never compared or judged them but had considered each one a great gift.

We often get caught up in evaluating our choices to ensure that we have the best rather than realizing that what we have is incredible. In another room, I wouldn’t have seen the quail rustling the rosemary bushes in the evening or the blazing red flowers of the New Zealand tea tree. I wouldn’t have heard the drone of bees—the loudest I can remember—coming from the giant pollen gathering festival taking place nearby.

I’m not suggesting we forfeit our choices. There are too many places in the world where people literally have no choice, and the resulting suffering can be immense.

I’m simply proposing that whichever road we choose, we remember it is strewn with gifts that are not better or worse, only different.

Not to Clean

Labor Day is not usually life-changing for me, but this year, I learned something extremely important: cleaning takes time. Others may have grasped this concept much earlier in life, but I’m pretty excited about it.

Let me unfold the revelation for you. I played soccer all day Saturday. On Sunday, a friend and I went to an art show and then some other friends had me over for dinner. Monday morning I looked disconsolately around my house and wondered how another weekend had gone by without any scrubbing, vacuuming, or mopping taking place. No hope beckoned as most of the coming day was slotted for eating pancakes, giving my dad a birthday call, buying groceries, and hanging out with my mom.

Then, while describing my weekend to my dad, divine inspiration descended: I realized I could have cleaned only if I had done it instead of all those fun things. True, this is a bit like mastering a kindergarten-level mathematical concept while doing your Ph.D., but I had never accepted the either-or idea in this context before.

I always felt as if it should be possible to do it all—the fun stuff and the cleaning—as if everybody else knew some secret technique. But no, they were actually spending time with sponge in hand. That’s the problem with this whole finite thing, every moment can contain only one action, no matter what we like to think about multitasking.

I have a quote from Mastercard above my desk at work. It says, “Not having to choose—priceless.” It’s there to remind me that the people who say I can have it all are selling me something and that the freedom to choose is a great gift.

So if I have to decide between a soccer tournament and a clean bathroom, the bathroom will lose every time. And I’m OK with that now. Mostly.