“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.” -Elie Wiesel
November is often referred to as gratitude month, probably due to the celebration of Thanksgiving. The origin of the day can be traced to the Americas. The earlier celebrations have been attributed to Canada to give thanks for; surviving the long sailing journey from England through the exposures to storms and massive icebergs, bountiful harvests and the arrival of more settlers. In the United States, the holiday is mostly traced to the 1621 celebration in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in appreciation of the fall harvest. Regardless of its origins, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and a precious reminder of the principal of giving thanks regardless of ones religious or non-religious beliefs.
Certainly, across my life span, I had heard of the concept of gratitude as in, “Be grateful for your week old bread because there are children starving elsewhere, or, “Be grateful that it wasn’t you who died in that car accident, etc” Ok! I’m grateful. But for me, the entire concept of gratitude was only for those moments when I escaped a tragedy or by-passed getting into trouble, especially after a night of drinking.
As a new member of a self-help group, I kept hearing people speak about gratitude, “Be grateful” or, “Write a daily gratitude list.” I wondered what they were talking about?
Then one day, standing in the shower, nursing a headache and filled with self-pity at my lot in life, I had what some would call a life changing experience. I felt completely overwhelmed taking five difficult college courses that semester and dealing with a blended family which included four teens that absolutely hated each other and me. The two oldest were terrorizing me with threats of suicide when one day I wished they would stop threatening and just get on with it and leave me alone, which caused untold shame and grief, blah, blah, blah.
As I reached for a bar of soap─I clearly remember it being a bar of white Dove soap─I had a thought course through my mind and body like a shot of electricity. I remembered growing up without any soap, or if we did have soap, it was something called lava that was so harsh it practically took my skin off when bathing. My family, existing on welfare, sometimes without electricity and little to no food, much less soap to clean our bodies, was up to its eyeballs in poverty.
Here I was, now married to a great guy, both in excellent health, privileged enough to be going to college, healthy children (if difficult), plenty of food, electricity, hot water and any kind of soap I chose to buy (which is still Dove). Wave after wave of gratitude washed over me as I held onto the wall handle. To comprehend the meaning or concept of gratitude was truly a defining moment in my life.
Ever since that day (28 years ago) gratitude travels across the backdrop of my mind like a Wall Street ticker tape. Throughout my year long cancer treatment, I was grateful for having good insurance, excellent doctors and a loving husband. When my step daughter died this year from a cocaine overdose, I was grateful for the means, shared with her mother, to help facilitate a beautiful memorial. I was grateful, since she persisted in her addictions, that she died without having killed someone while driving. Her tender heart could never have endured such a burden. I was thankful for the loving support of friends and family. I was profoundly grateful for the people who beautified the cemetery that I visited each morning as her death slowly sank into my heart. Every day I walked to the cemetery seeking comfort for my aching heart. Being there with all those who had gone before helped me know that I was not alone in my grief. So profoundly bitter-sweet was this place of sorrow.
Gratitude is a soothing salve to use as a life skill when difficult things touch our lives. You may have to look long and hard, dig wide and deep for something to be grateful for but searching for something, anything, to appreciate will help get you through the dark nights of the soul. Just as sure as you are human, dark nights will fall.
Personal picture by Cynthia