It’s that time of year where families sit around the Thanksgiving dinner table and tell each other what they’re thankful for.
Being thankful is a good thing. Being grateful is a great thing! Being bitter, well, that’s a terrible thing. What’s the difference? Here’s my thoughts.
In 1983, I joined the Navy in order to attend dental laboratory technology school. I had a certificate from a civilian school but needed experience to get a job. The Navy recruiter promised me dental lab school, but first I had to attend dental assisting school. Dental assisting was awful. I was ok though since I knew I had lab school to look forward to and then a short career in the Navy, away from patient care. Except that the convening dates for the lab school didn’t match my assisting school graduation. I was instead sentenced to 5 years as a chairside dental assistant at an overseas command. I was bitter.
I was more bitter when I reenlisted to at least get back to the U.S. and was again assigned chairside. That ultimately meant 8 years chairside when most dental techs did 18 months. I reenlisted yet again and pushed myself to get BS and MA degrees in order to apply for the Medical Service Corps Inservice Procurement Program. I was turned down 3 years in a row. Some of those who were selected barely had a BS degree. I was bitter. I was bitter that I served under a succession of emotionally unintelligent bosses. I was bitter that my Navy career was the complete opposite of what I expected.
So I took my bitter self out of the Navy at the 15 year mark.
And I was thankful. So thankful that on my last afternoon in the Navy I tossed my uniforms in the dumpster in full view of the staff of Naval Dental Center Northwest, scraped my DoD base access sticker off my windshield with an ice scraper, and gave everyone a two handed, one-finger salute before screeching out of the parking lot.
I was thankful that I was free. Thankful that I could dress like I wanted and say what I wanted and could freely disagree with anyone I wanted. Life was good. Or so it seemed.
Until I realized that being thankful was just the feeling of not being bitter anymore. It wasn’t really all that satisfying. And while I wasn’t bitter in name, in spirit I still was.
Then I realized that to be truly happy, I needed to reset my goals. I focused my attention on what I could do, not on what I didn’t get. I built my business and it grew. My bitter, that turned to thankful, was now grateful. Grateful for what I had, not for what I had not. And ironically, once I made that shift, I was able to return back to my military roots and serve, really serve by teaching transition classes, coach and mentor transitioning sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines, and shift into a semblance of gratefulness for my Navy career.
Yes, this is a long story and it’s not one you hear from military veterans. But it’s a good lesson on what to focus on. So, this Thanksgiving, learn to separate the terms:
Bitter: I’m pissed at the world and all the terrible things that have been done to me (victim). “Everyone is out to get me.” “I’m always on the outside looking in.” “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”
Thankful: I’m glad I’m not miserable anymore. “Be thankful you have a job” or “be thankful you have Brussel sprouts to eat…after all, there are starving kids in Africa who would love to have those right now.” (still kind of a victim…sort of)
Grateful: “My career is everything I’ve always wanted.” “My relationships are SOOOO fulfilling.” “My pet goldfish gives me great joy!”
Grateful comes from seeking what you really want. Thankful comes from not having what you hated. Bitter just acknowledges misery. All three are choices. This year, sort these out for yourselves and choose wisely. I’ve done enough of the first two. I’ll be going for grateful. I hope you’ll join me.