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Gratitude Without Attitude

It’s easy to be thankful when times are good. But what kind of pea-brained Pollyanna goes around feeling grateful for crappy stuff like illness, financial crises, and broken relationships?

Well…um…this kind, it appears. Now, wait. I’m no saint, and I’m just as capable as anyone of snapping at my kid, swearing at drivers who cut me off, and shaking my fist at the heavens, Job-like, over a cascading series of setbacks.

But over the years, I’ve noticed something. Although it’s normal—even necessary—to get angry or grieve when life throws a big spitball, getting stuck there serves no one. When we are blind to whatever gift might be contained in the grief, we are unable to move on—and we end up feeling even crappier.

Mining the gold—no matter how tiny the nugget—from a big pile of pain isn’t easy, and at first, it didn’t come reflexively to me, nor does it to most people I know. But I watched the ones who seemed to get it in a way I was not.

At first I shook my head—fine for them, but I can never be like that!—but the longer I watched, the more I saw, and the better I understood. Gradually—baby steps!—I learned that gratitude wasn’t just about gritting my teeth and pretending, sarcastically, to be thankful. In order for gratitude to work, I had to drop the cynical attitude and make it real. And if I could do that, I could find the way out of my pain.

I saw that when my husband’s parents were killed in a freak car accident, it knit him and his sisters—formerly estranged from each other—into a warm, supportive circle that sustains today, 15 years later. I saw that a friend’s brush with cancer gave her the chance to see how many people in her life cared about her and supported her—and to see who didn’t, propelling her out of a bad relationship and into a new life full of love and meaning. I saw that when my uncle lost his job, he realized how miserable he had been—and he used the kick in the pants to launch a new career as an entrepreneur.

So I took my first tentative steps with gratitude in the face of challenge. And, oh, they were shaky, pitiful attempts in the beginning.

  • I am grateful for rush-hour traffic, because it lets me listen to the end of All Things Considered, I thought tentatively—and stifled the inner cynic who said, yeah, right.
  • I am grateful my son’s friend spilled apple juice, ruining a $200 Wii and three $50 games—because now my son is reading more books, paying more attention to the dog, and playing more board games with me. That one took a month to really believe.
  • I am grateful for the friend who stopped calling when my marriage faltered, because it helped me see that we weren’t actually friends at all, and freed me to find people who really are.

And slowly, with practice, it got easier and more reflexive.

  • I am grateful the camper trailer I bought developed a horrible water leak on its maiden voyage, because secretly, down where it’s hard to admit, I hate camping and am relieved to not have to do it.
  • I am grateful for the box of things the movers lost, because it reminds me that stuff is just stuff—and that love can never be mislaid.
  • I am grateful for the 20-year chronic illness that has taught me compassion for others, tenderness for myself, and reminds me to pace myself and spend my energies wisely.

So this Thanksgiving, while we’re all giving thanks around the table for good health, loved ones, abundance, and the roof over our heads, how about we also give thanks for the leak in that roof, the imperfections of our near and dear, the household budget cuts, and the aches and pains—and give it sincerely? Our challenges are what motivate us, shape us, and allow us to grow. Now that’s really something to be grateful for.

Photo by Angus MacRae, ©2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, no changes made.

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