Five years after founding The Gratitude Campaign, I've received over 10,500 e-mails, and 1,500 comments on YouTube. It seems that there is a lot to talk about with regard to gratitude for those who serve; not the least of which is the ever present challenge of understanding how to keep the politics out of it. Hopefully this blog will give us an opportunity for some rational, reasonable, and respectful discussion. I hope you'll join us...

~Scott Truitt, FOUNDER


Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Overcorrecting

This morning I awoke to find a comment that someone had left on our YouTube page. It read:

“Gratitude should be shown to individuals not to entire categories of people. Just because someone is wearing a uniform that doesn't mean you know anything significant about who they are. I know that this video is well intended but I worry that this is a double edged sword; that people who are eager to make positive assumptions about soldiers might be prone to make negative assumptions when they encounter a woman in a hijab or burka for example.”

I wanted to take a moment to respond to this, because I think it raises a couple of important points. I’ll address the first couple of points, and then to the real issue at hand:

First, ironically, our campaign IS about thanking individuals as opposed to entire categories of people. Our campaign was specifically designed to provide civilians with the means to look one person in the eye and thank them for their service. And while it is true that just because someone wears a uniform doesn’t mean that we know who they are it does tell us what they do and that is that, by definition, they serve to defend our freedom and security. And Service is deserving of gratitude.

Now, before I go on, I want to acknowledge that the author of this comment likely has their heart in the right place. They are clearly expressing a concern about discrimination; and I agree that that is something that we all need to be conscious and aware of. Having said that, I think that this comment illustrates an all too frequent response in our society of overcorrection – denying a certain good out of fear of a potential bad.

Let me use an example: helmet laws. Many states, including my native Washington, have laws requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets. These laws were enacted to address a growing problem of riders getting into accidents, cracking their skulls, and thus requiring intensive medical treatments for which they had no insurance to pay, thus costing the tax-payers millions of dollars per year. The solution? Make everyone wear helmets. The problem with this solution, and the point at which it becomes overcorrection, is that it denies riders – even those with adequate health insurance -- the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not they are willing to take the risk of riding without a helmet. If a rider has adequate insurance to pay for their own treatment should they get in an accident, and they are not risking harm to anyone else by not wearing a helmet, shouldn’t they have the right to decide for themselves whether they wear a helmet?

Some (in my opinion) smarter states have enacted laws stating that riders who choose to ride without a helmet must be able to show proof of adequate health insurance in addition to their license to ride. This solution actually addresses the issue at hand without overcorrecting and denying others their freedom to decide for themselves.

In the case of the author of the comment above, their solution seems to be that we should not thank anyone we don’t know for their service for fear that the opposite could happen and that certain people might be discriminated against for what they choose to wear. I would argue that that solution does more to separate us and isolate us as people by suggesting that we can’t assume anything good about our fellow man for fear that we might also assume something bad. There will always be the potential of people assuming bad things about those they don’t know and don’t understand. And we need to be conscious of that, and encourage people to learn more about each other, rather than isolating and engaging less with one another. Let’s deal with discrimination directly when and where and how it happens. But denying those who serve the gratitude that they deserve, denying people the option to assume the best in their fellow man, to connect with them, and express what is in their hearts is an overcorrection that does more harm than good.

I would encourage everyone to see what happens when they assume the best in their fellow man, and interact with them accordingly. Thank those who serve for you. And smile at the woman in the hijab or burka. Goodwill is contagious. And wouldn’t you rather catch that than the fear of the other edge of the sword?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

On the Power of a Moment

My wife and I were dropping some friends off at the airport this past weekend. And on the way back to the car we passed a Soldier with his wife and small child pulling his bags out of his car. As we passed by, I gave him the Sign. He nodded, and held up his hand as a sign of “no problem”, or “you’re welcome”, just as Master Sergeant Kevin Johnson did in our video.

I’ve given the Sign to those who serve many times before. But more often than not, I approach those who serve directly, and I offer a hand shake and verbal “thank you for serving”, and I engage in a little conversation. When I do use the Sign, it’s often because I can’t reach the person I want to thank, or because the situation does not support me approaching them directly. And in many of those situations, they’ve offered a head nod, or some other sign of recognition. But this is the first time that I have experienced a Soldier’s reaction being exactly as Master Sergeant Johnson reacted in our video. It was quite powerful to me.

As my wife and I drove away, I couldn’t help but piece together the situation we had just witnessed and participated in. This Soldier was clearly unloading his car -- not loading it. I am not a gifted enough writer to communicate how powerful and meaningful that realization was for us in that moment. He was unloading his bags at the airport. He was on his way out… to God knows where, for God knows how long. His wife and small child were there to see him off… for God knows how long. What a solemn moment this must have been for that Soldier and his family. His wife, who knew all too well what was happening; and his small child, who had no idea what was happening, or how long it would be before they saw their father again; or that there was a very real possibility that they may never see their father again.

And in this moment - this incredibly powerful, life-changing moment for this man and his wife and small child that I happened upon - I offered a simple Sign of gratitude. Was it enough? Did I do enough to earn this man’s service and sacrifice? Did I do enough to make this man’s wife feel that her sacrifice – that her child’s sacrifice – were worth it? I have no idea; from my point of view, absolutely not. But it’s a start. Perhaps it served as a reminder of why they’re sacrificing what they’re sacrificing. Perhaps knowing that their service and sacrifices were recognized, and appreciated helped in some small way to assuage the heartache of the moment. I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know for sure is that from my point of view, it was a powerful reminder that a “thank you from the bottom of my heart” is a very good start; and certainly tenfold better than no acknowledgment at all. But it’s just a start.

Friday, June 4, 2010

On Missed Opportunities

My sister and her husband came to visit my wife and me for the weekend. They just arrived tonight, and we shared a glass of wine, and did a little catching up. As we talked about their trip, they shared with me that they had had a couple of opportunities in the airports along the way to express their gratitude to a Service Member, but had missed them. Both times they were walking along the concourse, both hands full, and the moment just went by them too quickly to do anything about it.

My wife added that she had had a couple of similar missed opportunities recently, where she was at a grocery store, and wanted to say "thank you" to a Service Member, but they never made eye contact. This is a little ironic for my wife in particular by the way, since she appears in our video, and the first shot or scene in the video of her watching the Soldiers walk by is what the Director, Amy Sedgwick and I referred to as the "missed opportunity shot".

I've had many such experiences myself, where I saw a Service Member out in public, and I wanted to express my gratitude, but circumstances did not allow it. Perhaps they were too far away, or I couldn't get to them, or they were engaged in some activity that would have been rude for me to interrupt. Then I was left with this nagging feeling that I had missed my opportunity -- that perhaps I had just wimped out, made excuses, and failed to take the initiative to approach them. Then I felt bad for not telling this person how much their service means to me.

So, here's what I've learned from those experiences: It's OK. Sure, in our video we say, "Just don't miss the opportunity to thank the person right in front of you." But that line is not intended as a guilt-trip -- it's a goal -- an intention. It doesn't mean that you have to feel bad if you miss a single opportunity to thank someone. There will be other opportunities -- trust me. The point is not to kick yourself for missing one, but rather to set the intention to take the next one.

The one other thing I would add to that is that this is a relatively new campaign in the grand scheme of things. Sure, most Service Members have seen our video, and are familiar with the Sign. But we've still got work to do to make receiving our Sign as common for those who serve as sending or receiving a military salute. You are part of that work. They have been trained to look for rank insignias on other uniforms to determine if they should be sending or receiving a military salute from another Service Member -- they haven't been trained to look for our Sign... yet. We're training them now -- you and me. So my advice to you when you can't make eye contact is: Give them the Sign anyway. Perhaps they'll see the tail end of it, if not the entire thing. Perhaps they'll see it out of the corner of their eye. And the more they see it, the more they'll look for it. It will become a reflex -- just like the military salute.

And even if they don't see it, you will know that you did it. And trust me on this one, doing it feels better than not doing it. Even if they don't see it at all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

On Gratitude & Psychological Well-Being

This week, I want to share an excerpt from a blog on Psychology Today by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, who sent it to me last week. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. is a Professor of Psychology and Director of the Office of National Scholarship Advisement at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (Posted with her permission.):

Many real-life heroes also do not expect thank-yous. Yet, when we benefit from the labors that others put out for our sake, we feel internally driven to and want to express our gratitude. And that's a good thing, in more ways than one.

Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough point out that gratitude is the "forgotten factor" in happiness research. They point out the benefits of expressing gratitude as ranging from better physical health to improved mental alertness. People who express gratitude also are more likely to offer emotional support to others.

Expressing gratitude in your daily life might even have a protective effect on staving off certain forms of psychological disorders. In a review article published this past March, researchers found that habitually focusing on and appreciating the positive aspects of life is related to a generally higher level of psychological well-being and a lower risk of certain forms of psychopathology.

Now how can you apply these ideas to your own life? Here are some suggestions to boost your own, shall we say, GQ's ("gratitude quotient"):

1. If someone thanks you, accept the thanks graciously. Let the person know you appreciate being thanked. That's all you need to do. Really.

2. If you find that difficult, think about why gratitude makes you uncomfortable. Do you not feel worthy of being thanked? In my study of personal fulfillment in midlife, I identified a subgroup of people whose own fulfillment was hampered by their lack of faith in their own worth. Chronic feelings of inadequacy can make it difficult for people to benefit from any thanks that come their way.

3. Look for small things to be grateful for. Not all acts of kindness have a capital "K." A driver who lets you ease into a busy highway deserves a wave just as much as someone who holds open a door when you're loaded down with packages. A smile will boost your GQ and make both of you feel better.

4. Don't fret about gratitude infractions. If you forget to send a thank you note don't worry about it and certainly don't use elapsed time as an excuse to avoid the task altogether. Send a quick email and then get to the real thing. If you're a chronic forgetter, though, you might try to figure out why. By the same token, if someone forgets to thank you, don't ruminate over it, thereby raising your BP if not your GQ.

5. Keep your thank you's short, sweet, and easy to write. One reason people procrastinate about writing thank you's is that they want them to be original and not seem hasty, insincere, or ill conceived. This doesn't mean the thank you should be one that is short enough to tweet but if you don't build it up in your mind as having to be a magnum opus you'll be less inclined to put it off. Whatever you do, don't make excuses or lie about having sent a thank you that you never did (for more on lying and excuse-making, check out my previous post).

A great reminder that gratitude is not only good for the receiver, but also for the giver. Thanks, Susan. To read Susan's entire blog, please visit http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201005/giving-thanks-the-benefits-gratitude