If the only prayer we say in our lifetime is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” German philosopher, Meister Eckhart
In a time when we are constantly confronted with world crises–the devastation of Nature’s wrath, global warming, poverty, famine, war or terrorist attacks on innocent people, or living with a life- threatening illness like cancer–life may seem overwhelming, and it can it be difficult to remember or feel gratitude. Yet every time I watch the evening news, there’s a story, an example, of individuals whose lives have been turned upside down by crisis or tragedy expressing gratitude for whatever help, hope or unexpected acts of kindness they discover among the rubble of their lives. It always gives me pause for thought–a little nudge to not “let the turkeys” get me down.
Last night, tired from a busy weekend, I restlessly flipped through channel after channel of football, before settling on the final segments of CBS’s 60 Minutes. I’m glad I did. Senator John McCain, recently diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most virulent and deadly forms of brain cancer, was being interviewed by broadcast journalist, Leslie Stahl. McCain, a POW during the Vietnam War, is no stranger to suffering, yet his spirit and determination–qualities that likely helped him survive the torture and hardship in a POW camp–are as strong as ever. When his doctors confirmed his cancer diagnosis, he responded by saying, “I understand. Now we’re going to do what we can, get the best doctors we can find and do the best we can.’ And, at the same time, celebrate with gratitude a life well lived.”
McCain begins his day with chemotherapy and radiation before he goes to work in the Senate, explaining this to Stahl as being “more energetic and more engaged as a result of this because I know that I’ve got to do everything I can to serve this country while I can.” The senator admitted that sometimes, yes, he feels fear about what may happen, but he reminds himself that he has experienced a great life and celebrates it with gratitude. “I am so grateful,” he remarked near the end of the interview, “every night I am filled with gratitude.”
Gratitude, as McCain likely knows well, is good for us. A sizeable body of research has been conducted on the positive effects of gratitude, including its emotional and interpersonal benefits. For example, research suggests that a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits. Other studies show that those who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives, and are generally more optimistic. Grateful individuals also report more positive connections with others, satisfaction with their lives, and demonstrate a greater tendency towards empathy and generosity toward others (McCullough et al, 2002- 2003).
“…celebrate with gratitude for a life well lived.” McCain’s interview gave me pause. I’ve been hovering on the brink of feeling sorry for myself in the wake of a computer crash, the dull pain of an arthritic knee, and a host of bureaucratic frustrations as I re-settle in Toronto. Little by little, things continue to improve, but it doesn’t take much some days to find anger, worry or frustration seeping into my thoughts and coloring my mood. I know how powerful gratitude is, but despite that, I am challenged, some days, to consciously re-direct my thoughts to the things in life that keep me going, provide solace, joy and gratitude. In a world so fraught with divisiveness, crises, suffering and fear, gratitude becomes all the more important.
In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer―Letters and Papers from Prison
Gratitude was on my mind last week when I met with the executive director of Toronto’s Gilda’s Club just as it had been two weeks earlier, when I met with the executive director at Wellspring, a cancer support services organization in the greater Toronto area. The services and support offered to those living with cancer encourages gratitude–even in the midst of something as devastating as cancer. I was reminded that while I have loved returning to this city, I have greatly missed the expressive writing groups I led for so many years in California, and I was grateful that both Toronto organizations welcomed me and having an opportunity for us to learn about one another.
As I described my expressive writing programs, I recalled how many years earlier, when I first came to as a recently widowed single parent, how very raw and emotional I had been with grief. I began seeing a therapist, and as the sessions progressed, I cautiously began to bring a poem I’d written –poems that spoke to what I was feeling, struggling with, trying to resolve. A routine developed between us, one that would influence not only my healing, but the workshops I would later lead for cancer patients. At the beginning of the session, I read the poem aloud then gave my therapist a copy. He never questioned nor attempt to interpret what I had written. Instead, he responded only with gratitude, just two words, “thank you,” that did more, in those vulnerable weeks, to build trust, self-affirmation and buoy my spirits than, perhaps, anything. To this day, when someone volunteers to read aloud in my writing groups, I respond immediately with those same two words, “thank you,” so powerful is the gift of gratitude to the human spirit.
So today, I focus on gratitude. I’m grateful for the first signs of autumn in the maple trees outside our windows, for the companionship and conversation with old friends over a Sunday lunch, for the latte my husband brought me from the cafe across the street this morning. But in particular, I’m grateful I paused to stop flipping television channels and hear the interview with Senator McCain. It was a well-timed “listen up” to help me right my sagging mood at the end of a trying week.
Gratitude is infectious. Try it on for size today or this week if you find yourself slipping into self-pity or sorrow. Take a walk. Remember what you have that gives you joy. Pause at a tree, its colors turning in the first days of autumn. Remember to say those two simple words, “thank you,” to a loved one, the cashier at the market, the awkward teenager who suddenly remembers the lesson his parents have tried to teach him and opens the door to let an elder person pass through before him. “Thank you.” It’s a little infusion of gratitude. And when the world gets us down, it’s all the more important we stop and remember what we are grateful for.
This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper…
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud…
…And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that you are lucky…
(From: “Starfish,” by Eleanor Lerman, in: Our Post-Soviet History Unfolds, 2005)
Is life getting you down? This week, take some time to write down one thing you are grateful for each morning. That’s it: just one. As the week progresses, return to those few sentences and reflect on the power of gratitude. Did anything change? If so, how? If not, explore that. Write a short poem or narrative on gratitude or the power of having someone say, “thank you.”