Living With Gratitude

From 1958-1963, The Naked City, a police drama set and filmed on the streets of New York City, aired on ABC television. It was my favorite show, not in small part because each episode ended with Lawrence Dobkin’s memorable voice sharing the iconic line: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”

While watching The Naked City I first realized we all have stories, moments, often small, that change and guide our lives. We are not always aware of the impact of a specific event until much later.

The following story is of a seventeen year old boy whose life was influenced by a simple event. It is my story.

In 1959, I got a job at a cannery in Modesto, California. The job entailed standing on a rampway watching cans of fruit cocktail go by on a conveyor belt. If a can tipped over I was to straighten it up, or if damaged, throw it away. The biggest responsibility of the job was to prevent any major pile ups.

One day while I was daydreaming on the rampway, Troy, the foreman, came running up waving his hands and shouting, forcing me to give up my daydream just when it was getting interesting. Seems the cans had been backing up for several minutes and there was a disastrous mess of several thousand mangled cans of fruit cocktail. I could have been fired on the spot.

The next few minutes changed my life. Troy had the conveyor belt stopped and helped me untangle the warped and mangled cans. It took a while. Once the job was done Troy said to me: “Did you know that 10% of all the fruit cocktail we can is gifted to starving people in different parts of the world? You have a very important job. By keeping the cans moving down the belt and into the cooker you are assuring that countless people in need will be fed.”

My fear of a probable firing dissipated. Instantly, my job went from a boring endeavor to essential work that helped feed thousands of people. Troy, while acknowledging my major mistake, gifted me trust for tomorrow rather than condemnation. I was and remain grateful.

Troy changed how I view life and relationships. I learned gratitude involves affirming something good and recognizing the source of that goodness is outside ourselves. We are not grateful to ourselves but to another being.

Robert Emmons in his book, The Little Book of Gratitude, refers to many recent studies examining the effects of gratitude on our health and wellbeing.  The practice of gratitude has dramatic lasting and positive results. In studies Emmons sited, stress hormones (cortisol) were reduced by 23%, fat intake reduced by up to 25%, and writing letters of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness by 83%. Gratitude when given or received helps us take charge of our emotional lives and our bodies reap the benefits. Emmons calls gratitude “fertilizer for the mind.” It feeds and improves most every area of our lives.

We all know that when we focus on worry, annoyance, and irritability our brains experience anxiety, depression, and anger. We become defensive and judgmental. A lack of gratitude leads to an excessive sense of self-importance, arrogance, vanity, and an unquenchable need for admiration and approval.  Ingratitude rejects the ties that bind people into relationships of caring for each other.

When we ask our brain to give thanks, to find things to be grateful for even in difficult situations, we create positive emotions to face challenges. Troy, whether he knew it or not, approached me with positive emotions rather than anger, and it was contagious. He changed me and how I relate to other people to this day.  Overstated? No.

A 2015 article in Scientific American reported that out of the 24 strengths, including such contenders as love, hope, kindness, and creativity, the single best predictor of good relationships and emotional wellbeing was gratitude.

Robert Emmons calls gratitude a way of seeing that alters our gaze. Being grateful begins with affirming the good and recognizing its source. Without gratitude meaningful relationships cannot find a home.

Gratitude acknowledges that we need each other and shatters the myth of self-sufficiency.

The author, Oliver Sacks, faced his death at age 82 with clarity, dignity, and humor.  Following his death a few of his essays were compiled in a short book entitled Gratitude. Near his death Sacks wrote: “My predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and I have given something in return.”

Grateful eyes see the interconnection between giving and receiving. Gratitude prompts us to share what we have been given, that is, passing on the gratitude we have received through expressing gratitude to others.

Near the end of the summer, Troy joined me on the ramp way where I still stood watching to make sure any can that tipped over was righted as soon as possible. We chatted for a few minutes, than Troy asked, “What job interests you most in the fruit cocktail section of the cannery?” I told him I loved watching the guy who had 23 buttons to push assuring that the various ingredients in the fruit cocktails were proportionately distributed. It was poetry, a symphony, to watch the guy pushing the buttons and smoothly control the supply and mixture of grapes, peaches, pears, and maraschino cherries. Troy told me the guy was getting a promotion and his current job was mine next year. It was a job three months ago I would never have had the self-confidence to ask for let alone execute. That day I quietly said, “thank you.”

Troy’s simple actions humbled me, affirmed me, gave me confidence, and changed my attitude towards myself and others. As I look back on almost eight decades of life, I am forever grateful for the gift unknowingly bestowed by a wise cannery foreman.

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. Yours is one of them. May your story be filled to the brim with giving and receiving gratitude.

Written by: Hartzell Cobbs

Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization.  He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.

More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…

From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.

With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.

In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.