Humans want to be happy. We are not comfortable walking around in a constant state of rage or anxiety. The challenge is how to stay upbeat in the face of people and circumstances that provoke negative feelings. Gratitude is our answer.
With gratitude, we detach ourselves from the source of irritation to the point where we can focus on what is happy in our situation. Gratitude is grounded and reliable. No matter how trying life becomes, we can always find a reason for giving thanks.
How do we get there? Recovery guru Melody Beattie advises us to arrive at gratitude by discovering a gift and a lesson in every relationship, every circumstance. Deepak Chopra counsels us to let the hurtful people in our lives be our teachers. Having these specific tasks in mind gives us a coping strategy for tough times.
Recently I found myself feeling a peculiar pang of thankfulness toward a most unlikely person: a former beloved who had, I felt, crushed my soul with his rage. How could there possibly be a gift in this?
The surprising moment of thanks came during a quarrel with another individual: a friend who, with no obvious provocation, began railing at me. In the past I would have allowed her to bash away until she had pulverized my sense of wellbeing. This time, however, I stopped her, countered her statements, and got off the phone. I felt slightly wounded but still confident that I could take care of myself and not let the incident ruin my day.
Gratitude arrived when I realized that, compared to what I had endured with my ex, the tiff with my girlfriend was nothing. It was a squeak and I had survived a roar. I felt oddly thankful that my pugnacious prince had helped me form a better shield around my feelings. He did not teach me to put up with more garbage. He taught me to never put up with it again.
This example may sound like a stretch and maybe it is, but I am using it because it shows that gratitude really has no limits. Of course I wish I had seen only sweetness in my ex. On the other hand, he was an invaluable teacher.
There is a another way to experience the healing force of gratitude, and that is to notice the simple miracles in daily life. I have a good friend who charges himself to “find something beautiful to look at every day.” This is gratitude. When you encounter light or beauty on your ordinary rounds, pause to take it in and allow yourself to feel thankful. Gratitude is ego surrendered, life simplified. When you say thanks, you exhale.
The brilliant children’s author and illustrator Dr. Seuss understood this when he wrote:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Certainly there is nothing more scorching than a sense of loss, whether it is the departure of someone cherished, or an experience that has come to an end. Seuss teaches us that endings do not have to be so woeful. He shows us that by altering our perspective we can get to a place of thankfulness instead.
The wisdom of Dr. Seuss makes even more sense when we remind ourselves of the simple truth that all experiences are fleeting. If we keep that sense of transience in our awareness, it allows us to feel grateful for places and people we have known. Once we make peace with the temporary nature of things, we recognize how important it is to be fully present and appreciative for love and life.
One recent morning, I woke up feeling anxious and blue. I was hungover emotionally from a stressful series of events, including a wrecked car, a blizzard and a tiff with an old friend. Grumpily, I pulled on my boots, clipped the dog onto her leash, and dragged myself out the front door and down my slippery front steps into the snow.
The walk was a revelation. As I crunched my way along icy sidewalks, I noticed that the first buds were pushing their way out of branches: tiny redbud leaves were starting to unfurl. Early spring was on its way. In a couple of weeks, crocuses would be poking up, followed by a steady parade of miraculous flowers, from March daffodils and forsythia blooms to the chrysanthemums and lingering roses of October.
The spirit of faith and courage that seemed to emanate from these little leaves gave me hope. I returned to the house feeling lighter, brighter, and very grateful indeed.