One philosophy I find it easy to embrace — yet hard to remember — is that of gratitude. 

Quotations about gratitude ranging from the sappy to the sublime remind us to be thankful. I boil it down to something simple: Pay attention. Pay attention to the good things I’ve got, try to remember what it was like when I didn’t have them and think kindly of all the people who don’t have them. 

Like water.

Years ago I visited South Africa when I was helping the late Edward Perkins write his memoir as a career Foreign Service officer and the first Black U.S. ambassador assigned to South Africa during apartheid. We were there in 2001 as a country of great beauty and great pain was trying to rebuild itself after a national policy of racism based on the religious belief that the white race was God’s chosen people. 

Some of our accommodations in Cape Town and Johannesburg were luxurious beyond my imagination. One of the most memorable trips was to a poor village in the Eastern Cape province where 90% of the people spoke Xhosa. 

We happened to be there on World Water Day, appropriate because we were touring a dam and reservoir. I saw the slogan: Water is Life. I read the messages about conserving the precious resource of water.

We were invited into the home of a woman named Cecelia who told us how the village’s new water pump changed her life. She now had running water in her home. She and other women of the village no longer had to spend about 90 minutes a day carrying water from the “lake,” a muddy water hole with cattle standing in it.

Cecelia’s little home was worn and torn but spotless. In the center of the kitchen table, glowing with glory, was a pitcher of water surrounded by four or five mismatched glasses. She saved her greatest hostess gesture for last. Just before we left, she asked us graciously and so generously, “Would you like a glass of water?”

I remembered Cecelia when I read Robert Caro’s extraordinary biographies of Lyndon Johnson. While researching, Caro and his wife, Ina, moved from New York to the Hill Country in southwestern central Texas to better understand the importance of Johnson’s bringing water and electricity to the region.

The stooped Hill Country women described their posture as “bent,” the permanent effect of carrying water from the well. Caro struggled to haul up one heavy bucket from a 75-foot-deep well. He determined that the average farm family of five used 50 gallons of water a day. Each bucket held 3-4 gallons and weighed 25-30 pounds. A woman made seven to nine trips a day to a well usually located about 253 feet from the house, sometimes carrying two buckets. No wonder the women were bent. Both my grandmother and my great-grandmother were bent. I thought it was genetic, but now I think it was from their early days on farms without running water.

I have a foggy idea of trying to live a simple life without too many gadgets, which is why I have resisted a smartphone. Only recently did I get one and learn how to use the GPS. It’s magic. A pleasant voice directs me to my location, turn by turn. To practice, I’ve had her direct me to places I often go — the branch library, the bank, the grocery store. She gets it right

every time!

Books, magazines and the internet are full of information about gratitude, why it’s healthy and how it makes us happier. Some psychologists say the best way to improve quality of life is to keep a gratitude journal and list three things we’re grateful for every day. 

The benefits of experiencing gratitude have been recognized by ancient religions to the more contemporary positive psychology movement. The Roman philosopher Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all others.”

Running water and driving directions — I have both. And so much more. I am a rich woman.

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