NOTE FROM DEBORAH:
Today I am featuring a guest who has some wonderful things to say about choosing gratitude.
A few months ago I read an article on gratitude where a number of psychologists studying it at the university level weighed in on the topic. One said while gratitude has definite mental and physical benefits, it isn’t the be-all, end-all answer to all of one’s problems. Another said gratitude isn’t always the best emotion to have in every circumstance, citing an abusive relationship or some other situation requiring one take action to protect oneself.
I think most people realize that gratitude isn’t a magic wand you can wave to make your problems disappear. It’s not a panacea. It won’t cure diseases and illnesses. Living in gratitude doesn’t mean you’re going to be grateful when something rocks your world, such as a divorce, a job termination, or the loss of a loved one. It doesn’t mean you’re grateful for everything that happens to you, although you may be grateful when challenges or painful experiences are catalysts for something better or results in learning.
While I appreciate the concern of the psychologists studying the topic, I’ve never known anyone who was able to get out of their bad situation without feeling gratitude for parts of their lives, and hope for the future.
It was famed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl who got it right, and rocked my world, when he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning about the joy and hope he felt when seeing a simple bud on a tree after a long hard winter in a concentration camp. It wasn’t his philosophy about finding meaning in all forms of existence that rocked my world, as much as the realization that happiness and hope were choices he made while enduring such a horrible experience. It was then that I understood that happiness doesn’t come to you in fleeting moments, as I was taught to believe, it was actually a choice I could make – and it was up to me no matter what my life looked like. I may not be content or truly happy, but I could experience joy about things, find hope in them, be grateful for them.
Is there a caveat? Of course there is. If someone has been diagnosed with depression or some other challenge, it may not be possible for them to get to the place I’m talking about, and may need additional help with therapy or medication. But most of us have choices we can make throughout our lives.
In Gettin’ Out of Bullytown, I wrote that even when I hated my life and wanted to die, which was at more than one point in my life, I still felt deep joy in my heart at the wonder of life itself. The millions of stars, the sound of rainfall, or the birds singing so loudly in the early morning hours when everything else was still…all stirred my soul.
Feeling gratitude isn’t having appreciation for everything that comes your way or happens to you, it’s the act of recognizing and appreciating the blessings you do have even when your life seems to be going haywire. Sometimes that’s the only thing that keeps a person from remaining in the abyss, or doing the unthinkable.
As someone who has been in abusive relationships, I can tell you that it wasn’t gratitude I felt toward the people causing my pain, although I came to feel gratitude for being pushed to such a point that I felt compelled to end the relationship, recognizing something within me needed fixing for putting up with it in the first place, and remaking myself until I had the esteem I had been lacking. It gave me strength and a resolve I have even today, forty years later. Without that moment in the abyss, I may have gone from one abusive relationship to the next. I felt grateful for the mind I had that allowed me to so clearly see why I was repeating a pattern. I felt grateful for the ability to remake myself in an image that allowed me to feel good about myself, since I had previously lived a life where that was denied me.
Viktor Frankl taught me that our spirit and responses to things are not just the result of external experiences and conditions of one’s life, but also a result of the freedom of choice we have, even while suffering. He found through his time in concentration camp that the choice of feeling joy, or of having hope, can carry one through the most egregious conditions.
Gratitude for the blessings we do have, instead of concentrating on the negatives, brings us joy. Joy leads to hope. And hope can help us find faith. Hope is the wish something will happen. Faith is the belief and trust, without any evidence at all that it’s going to happen. Hope is faith’s impoverished sister, but it’s a start!
Without feeling gratitude for the blessings I did see around me, which filled me with hope, I don’t know that I would have ever gotten out of the abyss. It’s not the ticket to paradise, but it’s a roadmap to a much better place, to be sure.
With her permission, I would like to share an email someone sent me recently which explains the process much better:
Thank you AGAIN for the kind gift of both the Daily Gratitude Reflections and the Grace of Gratitude Journal. I know I thanked you at the time you gave them to me, but I wanted to let you know what’s happened as a result of receiving them.
You couldn’t possibly have known what I was going through when you gave me those books. I’m sure you knew I wasn’t myself. I know I’ve gone from being a pretty carefree person, to a somewhat bitter, anxious, unhappy soul. Surely this revealed itself in ways I didn’t think possible, even though my lips were sealed.
As you know, over the course of a two year period, I lost my mother, saw the dissolution of my marriage, and was terminated from a job I loved and held for more than twenty years. That seems like a lot to bear on its own, but what you didn’t know was how I never felt my mother showed her love, which has been a pain I’ve carried throughout my life. Her passing just sealed the deal of never getting that from her. Then, while at my lowest, my husband came home with the news that he was leaving me. He had fallen for someone who was vibrant and exciting and he couldn’t continue living a lie with me while wanting to be with her. Double whammy in the feeling unlovable department. So I poured myself into my job, which as you know I’ve always loved and which you don’t know always gave me some sense of self-worth, only to discover the company was being sold and my position eliminated.
One devastating blow after the next. I felt I had aged and had lost all of my reasons for being alive, other than my children, who are adults now and have lives of their own. Many times when I bowed out at the last minute saying I had a headache and couldn’t make dinner with the girls, I was simply too depressed to get out of bed.
Then one day you called me up and asked if you could stop by. I said sure, plastered a smile on my face, and wondered why you couldn’t just leave me alone. I was further aggravated when you gave me the two books, both of which I viewed as homework I didn’t need or want.
A couple of days later I was crying and asking God why he wouldn’t just take me already. It was obvious I wasn’t here for any purpose other than to be miserable. I told God out loud, mind you, that I felt like I was 150 years old, and with my luck I’d live to be 150. I went to bed around 7:00 that night praying the Lord would just take me, and slept through until 10:00 the next day, waking up pissed off that I was still alive.
But later that day as I was just sitting around, I went to move the books you gave me and out of curiosity I opened up the Reflections book to a random page and read:
Thank you, Spirit within, and all around, for my capacity to forgive.
This forgiveness is for myself, when I fall short of my expectations, and extends to others, when they let me down in some way.
I am grateful for my caring heart that stays open, and for the kindness and compassion of my love.
Wanting to register the page number so I could go back and read it later, I realized it said, Day 150 at the top and was on page 150.
When I caught the 150, I knew that message was for me. I hadn’t forgiven myself for some things I did growing up, hadn’t forgiven myself for not being the kind of spouse I wanted to be and to have, and blamed myself for losing a job when nobody could have had any control over it. Of course I couldn’t forgive others, I couldn’t forgive myself, and even blamed myself for the job situation which was lost through no fault of my own.
I sat down and wrote a list of the things that happened in my life that I was at least partly responsible for. My mother? Not my fault. Her inability to show love and support didn’t make me unworthy. I AM worthy in many ways, although flawed. My job? NOT my fault! My marriage? Of course I played a part in it. So armed with this knowledge, I vowed to forgive myself, forgive others, ask for forgiveness where necessary and make the changes I needed to make to become a better human being.
Here I am one month later, writing each day in the Grace of Gratitude Journal the things I’m grateful for – like being lucky enough to have had a job that I loved for over twenty years, which is so much longer than most people. Like having had a husband who gave me three wonderful children and who is still a fantastic father to our girls. And having a mother who endured great abuse as a child, but didn’t abuse her own children. She wasn’t demonstrative in affection or supportive with her words, but she never put us down either. She did the best she knew how to do and meant well.
I feel like I am back among the living and all it took was one moment, with one message, that resulted in a change of thinking that led me to start viewing my life differently, that led me here. I’m purposely looking for the good now, and because of that, I feel hopeful and happy again.
I am also grateful to you for being a patient friend, and giving me gifts you must have known I needed.
So I will sign off with much love and gratitude, and the request that we get the girls together soon for dinner – and I PROMISE – no headache this time!!!
People don’t feel gratitude because of the suffering they endure. They feel gratitude for other things in spite of the suffering they endure. And as Frankl points out, gratitude for even a tiny bud on a tree can bring joy and hope for the future.
Be judicious in where you put your attention. You don’t want to miss the bud.
Maureen Barberio is the author of Gettin’ Out of Bullytown and teaches a Management Training Class through her company New Wing – www.newwinginc.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org