Taking Your Gifts for Granted

This post is about the human tendency to take things for granted, but it is not so much about taking the things you receive for granted as it is taking the things you give for granted.  It may not be as harmful to forget the things you are doing for others, but it doesn’t really help, either.

First, I think taking things for granted is a basic human characteristic.  I don’t think we can avoid it without great effort.  I think it is built into the basic design of our brains.

I say this because we are hard-wired to ignore background stimuli, whether they are visual, olfactory, auditory, etc.  If we look at a bunch of photographs with the same background, we stop seeing the background and only see what’s in front of it.  If we spend a lot of time in an environment with a unique smell, we stop noticing it.  If there is a repetitive sound in the background, we stop hearing it.  For example, have you ever heard a low sound (say an engine) that had been going on for some time suddenly stop and realize with a bit of a shock that you hadn’t even noticed it until it quit?

I think our brains do the same with any kind of input, even social input.  When we see the same thing happening over and over, we stop noticing it.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to new and novel phenomena and ignore the predictable things.

When this happens with unpleasant things, we say we are used to them.  When this happens with pleasant things, we say we take them for granted.  The two statements aren’t exactly the same, however.  You can say you are used to something, but if you were to say you take something for granted yourself, you would no longer be taking it for granted and it wouldn’t make sense.  It would be kind of a strange statement to make.

Even so, the two phrases express a roughly similar concept of failing to notice something that happens repeatedly.  When we stop noticing the things other people are doing, it can be somewhat harmful.  We can stop appreciating the people in our lives and they may feel that way.  We can also stop noticing the negative way other people are treating us and allow it to go on longer than we should.  Either way, it’s not a really good thing.

Interestingly, we can also stop noticing the way we affect other people.  A consistently grumpy person may stop noticing the negativity they bring into a conversation.  On the other hand, a constantly positive person may stop noticing the way they lighten the mood in the room.  Someone who varies between positive and negative will probably notice both, though, and someone who varies a lot may be keenly aware of the differences.

Since I work with teachers and paraeducators, I have ample opportunity to observe how people can stop noticing the good things they do for others.  Teachers and paraeducators do good things for kids every single day, but after a while they no longer seem to notice.  In fact, the longer they teach, the less they seem to realize how much good they are doing.  Even though their experience may actually increase the amount of good they are doing for students, they seem to feel they are doing less.  The positive feelings they had about their job diminish.

I believe this is the same for any job that involves doing good for others.  It could apply to teachers, nurses, doctors, police officers, therapists, social workers, parents, spouses or friends.  Our brains are simply not designed to notice things that happen predictably the same way we notice things that are unusual.  As a result, someone who does good things all day long can’t help but forget they are doing good things and only notice the unusual events, which are usually negative.  They will only notice the positive when it stands out.

I have a friend who has been a teacher for many years.  He is a pretty positive person, but the hours teachers are required to work and the stresses they are under make him tired and worn out.  (It is a little-known fact that teachers work very long hours sometimes.  Lately almost every teacher I talk to has worked over most of the previous weekend.)  I was at a Halloween dance the other night where a former student told this man he was her favorite teacher.  After she walked away, his eyes were very wet and it looked like it was almost impossible for him to hold back the tears.  It was one of those moments that made it all worth it.

When you do good things for others all day, every day, that’s what it takes to make you notice them.  It takes something unusual.  We are all like that, though.  It’s not just teachers.

The problem with this is that we get discouraged and can even reduce our efforts and end up doing less good for others than we otherwise would.  At the schools where I work, I know plenty of people who could do their jobs better if they were simply able to see the effects of their work more clearly.  A clear reminder of how much good they have done in their careers would probably help them more than any kind of training or advice would.

If we can remind ourselves to appreciate the people around us or if we can remind ourselves to stop and appreciate the smell of a rose or the beauty of a sunset, then perhaps we can also remind ourselves to appreciate the good we do for others.  Doing so may sound like pride and egotism, but maybe it’s simply true.  If it is true, then perhaps it could actually help us do more good things.  Something that sounds self-centered and egotistical might end up increasing the amount of good we do in the world.  That would be a good thing.

It’s just a thought.