Wisdom//

Actor Josh Radnor on the Unexpected Moment That Filled Him With Gratitude

"Gratitude, hope, faith, forgiveness, compassion – I could stand to work those muscles a touch more."

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I recently teared up over a plate of scrambled eggs in New York City.  Jet lag may have played a part as I had flown in from Paris the previous day where I was doing press for “Hunters” (all ten episodes of which are available to stream on Amazon Prime RIGHT NOW!!) But the feeling as the waiter plopped the plate down in front of me was not exhaustion. It was immense and overwhelming gratitude for the simple fact of food, that when I am hungry I can eat. How often do I take this astonishing fact for granted? About three times a day, by my rough estimate. 

I wish I could say that this upwelling of gratitude was a regular feature of my life but it’s not. Aside from the rare moment of scrambled-egg-grace, gratitude is not something that comes easy to me. Which is understandable. I was raised in a scarcity culture of ‘more’ and ‘better’ (a.k.a. America) Gratitude then is a kind of counterintuitive/countercultural practice, one that requires an intentional willingness to counteract my default setting of dissatisfaction and discontent.

One of the central delusions of my life is the suspicion that some other slightly better life is waiting for me, that with the right tweaks, adjustments, and strokes of luck this life will magically unfold before me. My friend Trent and I have a running joke about a ‘magical supplement,’ a pill that we can take once or twice a day – or some mystical powder we can throw in a morning smoothie – that will at long last have us feeling healthy, wonderful, and settled in our own skin.

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Discontent, the feeling that something better might be lurking over the horizon, seems baked into the human experience. What’s come to seem more and more important though is the necessity of telling myself another side of the story. That while, yes, the climate crisis may be hurtling humanity headlong towards the brink of disaster or extinction, it’s also true that meaningful change rarely occurs until we’re faced with no other choice. It’s the famed ‘rock bottom’ of 12-step programs, that our lives are capable of being transformed only when we surrender our ill-begotten schemes and admit our powerlessness. In this pliable, grace-receptive state we are open to guidance from an intelligence far greater than our own. 

In “Prometheus Unbound,” Robert Anton Wilson wrote that instability is a requirement for evolution. Ants, he said, are a highly stable species and thus haven’t evolved for millions of years. But humans are highly unstable and we’re evolving at a pretty furious clip. Thus all the individual and collective instability we bemoan is actually, on some level, serving us and nudging us forward. It’s not unlike physical training systems that keep you off balance in order to engage and work unused muscles.

Discontent and dissatisfaction are two muscles that I’ve fully overworked. Gratitude, hope, faith, forgiveness, compassion – I could stand to work those muscles a touch more.

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There have been studies done on how much more receptive we are to negative thoughts than positive ones (four times more receptive, actually.) Negative thoughts are like Velcro in our brains; we reflexively grasp negativity and hold it as a truth while being innately suspicious of anything positive. Just do a quick thought experiment around this: How much easier is it for you to believe personal criticism rather than compliments, to feel that what is wrong with you or your life is somehow truer than what might be right? Any actor who has read their own reviews (which I haven’t done for years, I learned my lesson) will tell you that they forget the good reviews almost immediately but can still quote the bad ones verbatim. 

The feeling that we’ve done something wrong is called ‘guilt’ and can be healthy and useful (if it doesn’t metastasize.) The feeling that we are wrong, fundamentally and irreparably flawed as a person, is called ‘shame.’ Nothing healthy about that. Also, nothing true about that, no matter what the critical voice in our heads tell us. I learned as a young actor that positive self-talk was going to be the most crucial factor in whether I kept at it or quit. The inner critic in my head was so swift and merciless that I had to find some other voice to counter it. First I had to learn what it was and what it was up to, that the thoughts in my head weren’t ‘me.’ They were programs I picked up along the way, bugs in my system. I came to see that there were other perfectly valid ways to think and be in the world, ones that weren’t so self-punishing and ultimately self-defeating.

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There’s no feeling I wish to close myself off to. I’m okay with despair and discontent as long as they’re only part of the story. I’ve no interest in blind optimism wherein I close my eyes and heart to the true suffering in the world. Nor am I interested in lazy, cheap cynicism where I feel the fix is in and change is impossible. I can hold both dark and light, while knowing that the light is going to need a bit more attention, care, and time. 

Counteracting that self-critical voice requires daily vigilance. Despair and cynicism are always extending a tempting invitation. But I’ve found the rewards of working those other muscles, of telling myself another story, are immense. It serves as a shield against both individual and collective hopelessness. With hope comes faith and aliveness. And with faith and aliveness comes determination and right thinking. I intuitively know what’s being asked next of me. And there’s an effortlessness in the doing whose byproduct is a new kind of joy, that of being used for a purpose greater than myself. 

Ben Lee was saying to me the other day (and I’m paraphrasing) that we’re clearly in the midst of a grand evolutionary story and it’s impossible to know the end of that story, what’s really happening to us and what all of it means, while we’re in the middle of the story. I really responded to that. My mind wants to pounce on the smallest shred of evidence and weave some grand narrative out of it. But if experience is any guide, I’m mostly drawing erroneous conclusions about things. 

Patience and humility are two other muscles that could use a bit more attention. And there’s some real relief on the other side of that. For today I don’t have to save the world. Today I don’t have to have all the answers. Today I don’t have to heal all my wounds. Maybe just for today I can be grateful for some eggs.

This is adapted from an email newsletter (a.k.a. Museletter) I send out about every two months. If you enjoyed it and want to sign up you can do that here. And here’s a link to check out past Museletters. JR

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