The goat in the house

June 27, 2012

It’s a parable, I’ve seen it written up as a children’s book, Willy used to tell the story, too.  It’s about a family in a one room and very small home, the kind with a dirt floor, and lot’s of extended family living together in it cheek by jowl.  The husband of the primary couple in the family goes to his local religious leader and complains about his living conditions (in great detail, if you want to prolong the story).  The religious leader instructs him to bring a goat into the home as well, the husband protests in surprise, the leader says do it and come back in a week.  The fellow does, the home is even more difficult to live in, the fellow returns to the religious leader a week later, the leader instructs him to remove the goat from the home and see him again the following week, which he does.  This time he is not complaining, he is “grateful” for the relative peace of the household in within the home.

This notion of “gratitude” has confused me.  It’s not that I don’t understand or haven’t experienced that feeling of relief and adjusted perspective, but I think we probably need to reserve the word gratitude for a purely positive feeling towards something; our total attitude about it may well be mixed, but the grateful part would be the strand of positive feeling — enjoyment, appreciation, positive regard of some sort.

I say this because when I think about things in my life in terms of “it could be worse,” it is a fragile bit of acceptance, kind of shallow and not robust when it does get worse.  Acceptance can be neutral but gratitude I think is more positive.  Both of them I think don’t waver when things do get worse.

For example, if I’m driving and grateful for an open road, it can’t be that I’m glad there’s no traffic, it should be my actual enjoyment of relaxation or ease, the view or the wind in my hair.  If around the bend I encounter a jam, my enjoyment may cease but I think I will feel less disappointed and frustrated if my gratitude was for something positive, not the absence of something negative.  Similarly, if I thought I wouldn’t have to fill out a particular bit of long and involved paperwork this year, I could just enjoy the time spent doing something else — if I try to be glad of not doing the report, when I find out I have to do it nonetheless, I will feel more frustrated.

I do think that the goat-in-the-house routine can help us locate what might be enjoyable in a situation that is difficult on its own, but I think I, at least, need to focus not on the absence of something worse but on the pleasure where I can find it in the situation, however fleeting it may turn out to be.

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