The two Gs

ZacTax Roundup for November 2020

We recently crossed the one-year mark for our podcast, ZacCast. As the anniversary came and went, I spent some time wondering whether we should remark on it. Thirty-plus episodes in, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to interesting people in the field and offer some thoughts on an increasingly wide range of subjects. But what really strikes me is how different our world looks just one year removed from those first episodes. Reflecting on those changes can throw even the most even-keeled person for a bit of a loop.

This year has been rough for just about everyone. It seems almost trite at this point to recount the myriad difficulties that we’ve shared over the past several months. Whether you’ve had a direct connection to Covid-19 or not, it’s impacted your life. The economic disruption, political turmoil, job loss, and general feeling of uncertainty. The loss of time with friends and loved ones, and in the saddest cases, the loss of friends and loved ones.

Adding to the personal stress, local governments faced a barrage of challenges as well, from implementing lockdowns, to dealing with protests, to budget shortfalls, and more.

If there were ever a time that we could all desperately benefit from an opportunity to give thanks, this is it.

If you’ve been personally affected by Covid-19, this might feel like even more of a stretch than it will for others. But research has repeatedly shown the physical and psychological benefits of gratitude on both the giver and the givee.

In addition to a spontaneous emotion that we feel, gratitude can also be deliberately cultivated. It’s something that we can choose to show, even if we don’t really feel it. And it can be even more important to show it when we don’t feel it, because the mere act of showing gratitude can actually change our emotional state.

It’s one of nature’s most powerful life hacks, and it’s particularly needed during times like these.

We all know that gratitude is a good thing, a bit like happiness. And while we can, to some degree, force ourselves to act happy even if we don’t feel happy, it’s much easier to cultivate gratitude. Gratitude is both the quality of being thankful for what you have, and also the readiness to show appreciation or return kindness. It is both a raw emotion and the outward expression of that emotion.

Dr. Robert Emmons identifies two stages of gratitude: acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life, and recognizing that some of the sources of this goodness lie outside of the self.

Although it can be hard, the first stage is critical to hold onto even in the darkest of times. No matter how dark the days, we can always find something to be grateful for. Sometimes you have to look hard to find it, but it’s there.

The second stage, however, is the vital piece of the puzzle. In order to work its magic, gratitude needs to be expressed outwardly to those responsible for that “goodness.”

And the benefits of doing so are numerous.

Research has shown that gratitude encourages pro-social behaviors and traits such as empathy and caring; it can make you happier and more optimistic; it can improve your physical health (or at least it is correlated with better physical health); and it can help your career, personality, and relationships with others.

It really is a superpower.

Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why does it work? Largely because it’s expressed for the benefit of others. The benefits we receive as a result are really just a fortunate side-effect. Like mold juice on a petri dish, a new market for a failed hypertension drug, or a smudge that becomes a beautiful little tree, it’s one of life’s little happy accidents.

The expression of gratitude is primarily to let someone else know you appreciate them, given without the need or desire for reciprocity. The act of offering a kindness without the expectation of anything in return is, it turns out, quite beneficial for your mental health.

And these effects can be especially powerful in those times when you may not feel too thankful. The kindness that you express has the effect of reducing bad emotions like envy and frustration.

If you’re married (or have been married), these are no doubt emotions that you’ve felt from time to time. It’s unavoidable. But how amazing that they can be overcome by simply expressing thanks, even for things that might seem insignificant.

It’s almost like we were given this gift of gratitude as a way to overcome the more base elements of our nature. No wonder gratitude is a key component of nearly ever major world religion.

It’s one thing to understand, intellectually, that gratitude is important; that it can be beneficial to you and others. But with most things in life, it can be difficult to translate “knowing” into “doing.” So how can we cultivate a sense of gratitude even when we aren’t feeling super grateful?

There are ton of self-help resources that can give you more insight than a newsletter purportedly geared towards local government managers. But since we’ve come this far, here’s a couple ideas:

Keeping a gratitude journal can be a good way to avoid the trap of only being thankful for the big things. By recording on a daily or weekly basis all of the things you are grateful for, it’s easier to remember the smaller things (someone holding the door open for you, picking up a coffee for you, etc). Journaling is also a good way to hold yourself accountable by forcing you to think about the subject. A great option is to use a service such as Trailmix, which for a small fee sends you a scheduled email each day that you simply reply to.

Most of our readers work in local government, and as a result get to interact with people from all walks of life. In addition to these daily moments, volunteering can be a great way to help people while also reminding you of the things you have to be grateful for.

The most important thing is to just do it. Make an effort to show thanks to your friends, your loved ones, your co-workers. To the water customer who just spent 10 minutes yelling at you about how their life was disrupted when a contractor hit a water line. It’s no easy task, but when life gets you down, gratitude can build you back up.

Tangentially related to gratitude is something we’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the past few months. If you’ve been steadily working through your Netflix queue since March, you might have come across a documentary called The Social Dilemma. It includes interviews from several former tech employees discussing the behind-the-scenes nature of social media and the impacts it’s having on society.

While some of the specifics may be news to you, if you spent any time on Twitter or Facebook during the course of our most recent election season, you’ve no doubt witnessed some of the polarization that the documentary highlights. You’ve probably encountered a touch of it in your jobs as well.

And that brings us to the second G: grace.

Unlike gratitude, which we can offer to others in response to something they’ve done for us, grace is something we can offer to others even when they may not deserve it. As such, it’s not only harder to do, it may not even be noticed or appreciated by the person to whom it is given.

More likely than not, you’ve been on the receiving end of an encounter that, shall we say, lacked grace. It’s somewhat built into the DNA of our line of work.

Maybe your city posted a note about a new development on Facebook, and the responses impute the worst possible motive to the decision.

“You’re just trying to tax us out of our homes,” is a common refrain, but you may also have been accused of kickbacks, not caring about child safety, or any number of awful things. (If this kind of attack bothers you, for your own sake please just avoid Next Door.)

Over the past week, I ran across numerous examples of public shaming on Twitter over the issue of parcel drivers blocking bicycle lanes. Since this is a discussion of grace, the name and location of this particular Tweet (which was sent by a city council member) have been redacted as we don’t want to get into the business of public shaming ourselves. It’s representative of dozens of similar comments posted over the Thanksgiving holiday:

Stipulating of course that the driver shouldn’t have parked in a bicycle lane, and that his response of “get a car” was probably inappropriate (if we take the charge being leveled at face value), what’s the purpose of such a public callout other than to get someone in trouble? Especially when your Twitter profile has your position of authority so prominently displayed? Mail delivery is an often thankless job, especially as online shopping has grown this year due to the pandemic. The driver might have handled the interaction poorly, but consider if the author/cyclist had said:

“Hey there! I know your job is difficult, especially over the past few months. I really appreciate how much you’ve had to do to help us out while we haven’t been able to shop at stores like we used to. In the future, would it be possible to park a little farther over so the bike lane stays open? It’s a little easier for cars to see your truck parked along the side of the street than me on my bicycle. I’d really appreciate it!”

One would suspect that this approach would yield a better result in the future. Instead, the two left with a feeling of mutual hostility, and the driver’s job may be in jeopardy as a result.

You see this quite frequently from so-called “Blue Checkmarks” on Twitter (those accounts that have been verified by Twitter as belonging to some public figure of note).

In January, a Blue Checkmark publicly called out a Target manager for “not honoring” the out-of-stock display sticker ($0.01) for a toothbrush that was on sale for $90. Target Tori, as she’s become known, received a wealth of public support, including donations sufficient to take a vacation. She has since used her platform to encourage kindness (using the hashtag #PauseBeKind) and has led fundraising efforts for other retail employees who have been subjected to the same kind of public shaming.

There seems to be an arms race on social media, increasingly where more of our lives are spent, to see who can be the most outraged. It’s feeding a vicious cycle of rage, resentment, and anger. And that’s no way to live.

So the message we’ve decided to push heading into 2021 is that we should all try to give others the benefit of the doubt. This is actually really hard to do. I struggle with it every day, and I’m sure you do, too.

But who wants to be defined by their worst moment? Who wants to have bad motives imputed to otherwise benign decisions or opinions? When it happens to you, you probably don’t appreciate it.

There’s a reason it’s called The Golden Rule. If we’d like others to give us the benefit of the doubt, we should be willing to do the same in return. Even if they may not appreciate it at the time. We can’t know what others are dealing with at the point in time when our paths cross. Instead of looking for opportunities to vent frustration, let’s look for opportunities to show grace.

Having read back through this, it’s clear that nothing we’ve written is novel. We all learned this stuff as children. But sometimes the things we already know are the things that are worth saying again and again. Or as my young daughter says, “‘gain again again again...”

As we move on from Thanksgiving week and head into the holiday season, let’s be grateful for the things we have, even in the face of monumental challenges like those we’ve seen this year. Let’s share that gratitude with those who give us reason to be thankful. And let’s show grace to everyone, especially when we think it’s not deserved.

We’ve all dedicated our lives to building strong and healthy communities. That doesn’t need to be limited to the mechanics of city government. We can also work to improve the relationships that make up the heart of those communities.

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