Monday, December 13, 2010


Thinking today about a few things, but right now I'm going to say a few things about appreciation. Appreciation has become an extremely important concept to me because it answers the question of how we can value things without craving, squandering, or corrupting them. I use the word "things" broadly, to cover opportunities, friendships, responsibilities, and other such relatively abstract items, in addition to material objects and resources.

The elements of appreciation as I understand it are awareness (as opposed to taking for granted), open cognitive engagement (as opposed to denial, avoidance, clinging, demanding, etc.), and what I'll roll up into the term "mindful practice" (maintaining and putting to good use). You can see that I pack a lot into this concept, but I think it falls together naturally and points to a pretty clear picture of a life lived responsibly and well.

What is it that I call upon myself to appreciate? I hope that I will manage to decently appreciate what I have; that is, what is available to me (I can stretch this to cover what is done for me by the kindness of friends, family, or strangers) and relevant (whether immediately or in prospect) to my personal projects of security, growth, character, expression, etc.

It may not be possible to appreciate anything entirely; the awareness included in appreciation involves an understanding that any item I have is historical and contingent, but I can never make a total inventory of its conditions and consequences, and I probably can't make every possible good use of it. Appreciation is therefore something that comes by degrees, and something that we can be better or worse at.

There's much more to say about this but I'm tired and I'm going to close this with a brief mention of what I call the lessons of appreciation, which include humility, industry, and thankfulness. The more I appreciate what I have, the better I understand that I don't come by it on my own, that I exist in a web of interdependent relationships in which I have my own role to play, and in which I benefit from the action of countless other people. I become aware of the good fortune I enjoy in existing at all and having as much as I do, and I am impelled to live up to that good fortune, to make it my own in lieu of being able to actually take credit for it. Living up to it means being grateful to those who are kind to me and thankful for the circumstances that sustain me, and working to contribute more than I consume.

This picture is a bit panglossian, and I don't know if I have it in me to inject much realism right now. We live in a world where misfortune and tragedy are commonplace for far too many people, and in many or most cases the last thing they need is to hear that they should appreciate what they have. In any case, I think that appreciation is an essential part of a well-lived life, and I wish I were better at it. Here's hoping!

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