Let’s take a break to be grateful

Originally published in Utah Business.

I served as an associate administrator for public affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the George W. Bush Administration. It was the most difficult job I’ve ever had. In its mission to protect human health, the agency regulates every business, household, and government agency in America. Regulation is not for the faint of heart, and that’s why they say your two best days at the EPA are your first and your last!

When Pres. Bush asked Administrator Michael O. Leavitt to serve as secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, my time at EPA ended. After being in the trenches with an extraordinary career service workforce, I attended a farewell party organized by my colleagues. There, I was gifted a fist-sized bronze sculpture of a person looking up into the sky with outstretched arms. The artist titled his work, “Gratitude.” Today, this small sculpture is one of my favorite keepsakes and something I treasure during the Thanksgiving season.

A lot has changed in our world since I was graced with the lovely sculpture. As I write this column, the US government faces a constitutional crisis, a dangerous trade war threatens our economic success, and Turkey’s military actions bring international condemnation, including charges of ethnic cleansing. It’s a gut-wrenching time nationally and internationally. 

Here in Utah, things feel much better, but we are not immune to challenges. We struggle to find solutions to housing affordability, homeless services, expansive growth, and we are also impacted by the national funk. All of these things threaten our quality of life. With these and other international, national, and local challenges, I have three suggestions for how to commemorate Thanksgiving 2019 from a personal and public policy point of view.

First, find a quiet place that receives direct sunlight. It could be a front porch, a backyard patio, a park bench, or a sunspot in your living room. Sit in the sunlight and let it warm you. Use this as a time to contemplate the things you are grateful for in life.

Second, while it’s unclear how to definitively solve the problems facing our world, it is clear that everything gets better when we approach challenges with a gracious spirit. It won’t settle a debate, but it will create greater unity. It won’t create common ground, but it will bring people closer together. A gracious, thankful spirit makes the world a better place full stop. Give it a try. 

Third, consider stopping long enough this Thanksgiving season to hold hands, metaphorically or otherwise, with others who think differently than you do. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, capitalist or socialist, a racial majority or minority, old or young, male or female, straight or gay, or any other juxtaposition, let the beauty of the earth and the power of gratitude work on you. Let it build a more inclusive and loving spirit within you.

The sculpture gifted to me by the EPA public affairs workforce is mounted on a wooden base that has a poem etched onto a metal plate, affixed to the base. The poem includes the inspiring and oft-quoted words of author Melody Beattie, reading: “gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

I’ve quoted this poem dozens of times since and apply it in my daily living. It conveys valuable wisdom and helps me approach life’s challenges. The application of the poem makes me happier, but more importantly helps me be a better person, a better parent, a better friend, and a better leader. 

Let gratitude unlock the fullness of your life this Thanksgiving.