Turning Thoughtfulness into Gratitude

How to turn your things into a valuable, badly needed resource…

step2 storage bin

#600: Step2 plastic toy storage bin — Freecycled October 2014

Here’s another reason for getting rid of things thoughtfully: gratitude.

The world could use a lot more gratitude. Surely if there is one thing we can agree on in our contentious, polarized society, it’s that there is a shortage of gratitude. Imagine if there were hidden, largely undiscovered reservoirs of gratitude just waiting to be released, easy to find and use.

Well, it turns out there are: just look in your basement…or attic…or garage — anywhere you’ve got lots of stuff you’re not using, you don’t need, and someone else might use.

That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from the 1000 things project: our things are vast deposits of untapped gratitude. I was sitting on a gold mine of good will, a Prudhoe Bay of positive energy to give to the world. Or at least it felt that way every time I overcame my resistance to giving away a (formerly) useful or expensive thing I owned.

I realized abstractly that people would be grateful to receive things I gave away, but I didn’t expect any more than polite expressions of gratitude. I was focused on getting rid of things, not on receiving anything from that process. So it was a bit of a surprise when people said more than simple polite thank-yous — nothing elaborate, just taking the time to say a few words of appreciation, or how they would use the thing and why they were grateful to have it. It was even more of a surprise when I started feeling gratified about giving things away, rather than simply being relieved to be rid of them.

The experience of creating gratitude made it a lot easier for me to give away things I didn’t need anymore — at least sometimes.  It certainly wasn’t automatic; I often had to go through the process of confronting various mantras about holding on to certain things:  A relative might be able to use it. It’s probably worth something. I should get some money for it. But gradually, I started to learn that I got more satisfaction from giving some things away than I ever would have gotten from any money I would have received.

In the process, I also learned an even more powerful truth: giving things away created new stories, based on generosity and gratitude.  The process of giving the thing away was the story sometimes; other times, it was hearing the story about a new attachment, a new role this thing was going to play in someone else’s life.  At a basic level, the story was simple: thing gets used instead of sitting in my house doing nothing and benefiting no one. Usually the stories were a little more substantive than that. For example, here’s an email I got from someone who took an old golf push and pull cart (#29; freecycled May 2014).

“Thanks so much. Just last weekend I played golf with my son and I was telling him that if I’m going to start using a cart, I need to get one rather than rent it. This is just what I was thinking of.”

It was gratifying to think of this golf cart being released as a tool for a father and son to spend time together. This in turn echoed the cart being a connection between my son and me in a different way: we never played golf together (I hadn’t golfed for ages and had no plans to do so), but I’d let him cannibalize the cart for a couple of school projects — the wheels were particularly valuable, and I remember it feeling liberating at the time to re-purpose the cart to a more engaging use.  Afterwards, though, I had a piece of junk on my hands unless I fixed it; but I was able to find the parts and put it back together except for a couple of screws at the wheels — not perfect but good enough to give away.

The plastic toy storage bin in the picture above (#600) was another gratifying example, in part because I resisted getting rid of it for some time. The bin was durable and weather resistant, so it had spent a long time outside on our front porch holding various toys until I eventually realized I could consolidate those toys into another bin. Then I thought maybe my niece and her family could use it for some of their young daughter’s toys.  Slowly it dawned on me that it was not worth it to transport an old, somewhat dirty bin 150 miles when they could buy a new clean one cheaply and easily where they lived.  One by one, the mantras fell away, and I finally got the gumption to put it on Freecycle. I’d put it on the front porch with a sign as was my custom, and a couple came over to pick it up while I happened to be home. I was aware of their presence but didn’t see a need to greet them, until I noticed that they seemed to be there for a longer time than usual. So I went out to see what was going on and discovered that they were having problems putting the bin in their mid-size car.  They’d tried squeezing it into the back seat with no success, so I tried to help. The bin was too big for the trunk even after we unloaded it; I tried squeezing the bin into the back seat several times with equal lack of success. They were clearly looking forward to having the bin to use to store garden tools and supplies outside, but they were about ready to give up. Finally I noticed that the bin would fit fine in the back of my car and asked them how far away they lived. When they said about 20 minutes away, I offered to put the bin in my car and drive it over to their house for them. At first they demurred, but eventually they agreed, so I followed them over to their house, unloaded the bin, received their thanks, and returned home.

From a time value perspective, this was a lot of time to spend (one could say wasted) on this thing.  But from a gratitude perspective, it was well worth it.

Of course, getting something from giving to others, whether it’s time, energy, attention, or things, is timelessly human and nothing new.  Nonetheless, you too might find that giving away something is more rewarding than you might think.

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