Monday, November 23, 2009


If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul. -- Rabbi Harold Kushner

Just as millions of other Americans are doing this week, my family is preparing for Thanksgiving. We're cleaning the house from top to bottom, scrubbing every surface that doesn't move (and a few that want to run away when they see the dog shampoo). I'm creating a master plan for who will sleep where, as our relatives come join us for the holiday. I'm planning the cooking time sheet to remind myself which dish needs to go into the oven when. I'm pulling out and ironing my holidays linens. I'm making last minute trips to the store so that I don't run out of milk, coffee and laundry detergent. I'm focusing on pick up schedules at the train, bus and airport. My mother and I will have our family tradition of watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade as we cook together. My husband will share the tradition of home projects with his parents, feeling grateful for their help. We'll feast too much, we'll watch some football, we'll enjoy my mother-in-law's extraordinary pies and we'll count our blessings.

This year, however, I'd like to try an exercise that's a little different, and quite a bit contrary to our usual recounting of the events and people we appreciate. I would like to attempt thankfulness towards the challenges in my life. The Buddha says, "Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn't learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn't learn a little, at least we didn't get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn't die; so, let us all be thankful". In 1 Thessalonians, St. Paul wrote, "Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." It's easy to be thankful for our health when it's good. It's a snap to be thankful to friends and family when relationships aren't strained. It's not a stretch to be grateful for our lives when one joyful coincidence follows another. We can smile, we can sing and we can praise the heavens for the bounty in our lives when our thriving plenitude overflows. But, what happens when we face a serious illness? When we find ourselves deeply hurt by someone we care for? When our finances will never cover our bills? It is at these times of "want" that we learn to appreciate the plenty.

Therefore, I'd like to count my trials as my blessings this year. I would venture forth to say that it is from these times of inadequacy that I have learned where my fortune truly lies:

  • I am thankful for the seriousness illnesses I have had, and the continued screenings and tests I must endure to make certain they have not returned. Being hospitalized, and especially being in intensive care, has left me with a profound sense of appreciation for my very existence. Every deep breath I take, every morning I wake up not attached to monitors and every moment I'm not in pain is a gift. I'm thankful for the amazing men and women who have cared for me, while I was unwell, and especially thankful for those who saved my life. The air smells crisper, the sunrises look more dramatic and the feeling of sleeping in my own bed is more delicious.
  • I am thankful for the people who have hurt me terribly. There is nothing like the pain of rejection, betrayal and disloyalty. Those feelings cut to the bone and are more arduous wounds to heal than those created by a doctor's scalpel. They left me with gaping trauma and humiliation at being so trusting of those who meant me harm. Still, as I began to heal from these internal injuries I also realized how exceptionally precious those steadfast people in my life truly are. Although my skeptical inner voice would whisper in my ear, "Don't allow this person to see the real you....she won't like you and she will use yournature to harm you....", I discovered that in being sensibly optimistic, I would have the chance to make a new friend, appreciate a family member more deeply and open myself up to new possibilities for caring. The somber wounds of deceit won't go away, but they can be cauterized. They also serve as a reminder to love those who are true all the more profoundly.
  • I am thankful for days in which everything seems to go wrong: the car won't start, the dog throws up on the one good rug, the washing machine 'walks' across the floor as it spews soapy water and the backyard fence falls over in a slow drift proving Newton's theory. I am thankful when our finances are in the red, rather than in the black. I am thankful when my two children get into a scrape. I am thankful when the roof over my head needs reshingling. I am thankful when the coffee pot overflows grounds, just like lava from Mt. Vesuvius. I am thankful when my jeans don't fit and that I'm sure that the scale must be broken. I am thankful when I'm hopelessly stuck in rush hour traffic, or that my airline flight has been delayed for the fourth time. I am thankful when my driveway becomes so icy that it's more like a skating rink built into a hillside than a road way. I am thankful for bad hair days. I am thankful for the swelteringly sickly hot days of summer. I am thankful for stuffy noses, bruised elbows and mosquito bites. I am thankful for dropping a Waterford crystal glass. I am thankful when I feel disgustingly short tempered. I am thankful when I burn dinner beyond recognition, and we have to have cereal for supper. I am thankful for every library book I've lost, for every bill I've misplaced and for each appointment I'd forgotten completely.
Why in the world would I be thankful for these events? Why would I feel grateful at having my feelings, my time, my life and my sense of self turn into a cyclone of emotional discontent? I am thankful because at these very moments, I have the special, exceptional and delightful opportunity to experience grace. We don't discover blessing, clemency or compassion when life is going well. We can't buy it, we can't trade for it and we can't steal it. We can only open our hearts to benevolence in times of need. I have learned far more during the darkest chapters of my life, and even during the moderately cranky moments, than I have when life seemed effortless and easy. It's when we are broken, distraught and inept that we have the unlikely shining goal of opportunity: the chance to find that magic crystal, from video game graphics, that will lead us to a greater understanding of life's meaning, to a more profound situation from life's tiny blessings and to an enhanced vision of where our life priorities should lie. These dreadful times of misfortune are when we learn true appreciation.

So, when you 'gather together' this Thanksgiving, and each friend or family member is telling what she is thankful for, remember that not all blessings come during the easy times. More often, the greatest lessons we can learn, and that can teach us to be the exceptional people we were designed to be, come wrapped the gift basket of calamity.