By Shamyla Tareen
My mother and I went out for a walk a few mornings ago. It was right before Thanksgiving. The sun was warm and the air was pretty crisp and chilly for a Florida morning. It felt good to walk with her, knowing that my time with my parents is limited, knowing that illness or accidents can take away any of us at any time.
She began to open up her heart. She talked about the things she wished for us that every mother wishes for their child. Then she compared us, her children, to other people’s children. She was talking in that way that many parents do – telling me what “so-and-so’s” kids are doing – things, milestones that we, her kids, hadn’t achieved. She mentioned things she naturally, as a mother, couldn’t help but wonder about, and yearn for, and maybe even have done differently for us.
I listened but was ready to spring to my defense. I listened indignantly and full of dread and self assertion. No child, no matter how old they are, likes to hear what they’re lacking! I tried to steer our conversation towards acceptance and the fact that everyone has trials in their life, and everyone’s kids did things or were different than how their parents initially dreamed they would be. What we did not discuss was a simple concept: gratitude for each other.
That’s the work that I do now. It wasn’t so much that I learned about gratitude in graduate school; it’s more recent, in the workshops I’ve attended, the literature I’ve been reading, and the conversations with other wise people who are living lives of gratitude. You could say gratitude is the new big thing, and it’s everywhere. (Google it – you’ll see!)
At first, and even now, I struggle with this notion. I feel angry and rebellious. Gratitude is mentioned in every major religion and self help book, yet sometimes I scoff (especially on days when things are not going my way). My thought process goes something like this: “Gratitude? That’s a good one! Ha!! You want ME to express gratitude with all the terrible things have happened to me? And the things that I STILL want often don’t happen! Why? I’d rather throw something. Why should I be grateful when life is SO HARD? Yeah, Yeah, I GET that I am breathing and the sun is shining and I’m living in a nice home, OKAY. So exactly HOW is being grateful supposed to make ME a better or happier person? And even if I was, which I won’t be – what good is it ? It won’t make my dreams come true! I can’t change my family. I can’t stop wars. I can’t change anything! This is so corny! This is so trite! This is so simplistic and I can’t! I WON’T.”
That’s an example of being human. But it’s also not a very helpful thought trajectory.
I keep reading that researchers have found that being grateful alleviates, or even eliminates, so many health and mental health issues, like Depression, Anxiety, Heart Disease, and other ailments. Thoughts trigger physiological changes in our bodies. People who live a life of gratitude report that they don’t wait for certain events to happen to THEN feel thankful for them – they just live their lives thanking either God or the Universe for what they already have. And that makes all the difference. I love the words I keep reading that are associated with gratitude- Joy. Enthusiasm. Cooperation. Energy. Optimism. Cheer. Alertness. Happiness. Peace of Mind. The list goes on.
I know some people who live their lives this way. The other day, I was complaining a lot to a colleague and she stopped me cold and started listing out all the things that she knew had just happened- wonderful, amazing opportunities – that may not be on my timeline, but have happened nonetheless. She could see it. Why couldn’t I? Could I be thankful for my life despite the setbacks and the frustrations, and have a higher happiness set-point? All last year I blogged about the Happiness Project. It definitely changed my life and people mentioned that they also noticed things I wrote about in their own lives. But the one key ingredient that bound every Happiness Blog together was gratitude!
So here is what I will do for myself. I am going to try something new (again). I am going to reframe, and look at the bigger picture. Yes, that means counting my blessings for the gifts in my life, something my grandmothers talked about and I pooh paah’d. I can stop to be greatful the gifts in my life that are painfully and fearfully wrapped. What I have is good. That doesn’t mean I won’t strive for more. It just means I won’t live in a state of longing and deficit anymore.
I counted a few opportunities I am grateful for right now. Here are four of the things that I could think of right off the bat:
1) Most of my adult life has been about learning new and different ways to live. I’ve had the opportunity to grow and to heal. I’ve talked to wise teachers and read new research. Maybe having tangible proof that I am able to change my life whenever I want, by changing the way I think, is the biggest gift ever.
2) My mother and I walked in the sun. I am grateful we could spend time together when once, we couldn’t. We were able to hear each other out and see our different points of view. So my mom and I can learn to be more grateful for what we have, instead of wishing each one was more different and had done different things for each other.
3) I got to walk casually down a street with sunshine on my face. I am grateful I can, when once that was impossible.
4) I live my life the way I want to, even with the mistakes and the hardships. I still fumble in the dark, getting by with help from my friends and family and mentors. And I am grateful I can.
Here are some helpful links about gratitude: