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Gratitude changes how we live

Gratitude changes usby Karris Golden

I’ve had some rough times the past few years. I have regrouped, started over and then circled back—the long way around—to start over again.

During the worst times, fear, doubt and confusion overwhelmed me. It was tough for me to pull away from thoughts of the unfairness of my circumstances. So much was out of my control. I second-guessed my decisions and berated myself for every mistake.

Worries morphed into a running inner monologue of complaints. I’d tell myself, “I work hard. I strive to be a good person. I deserve better than this.”

The more I listened, the louder that voice became. Big problems were compounded by all the little things I’d pile on.

When I fall into that mindset, regular activities become major inconveniences. It might mean that I view shuttling my daughter to her activities as a chore. Or I worry that eating a few restaurant meals will put us in the poorhouse. (back to top)

Evidence of blessings

My complaint monologue threatens to drown out the reality of my situation: The things I bemoan are actually evidence of my abundant blessings.

I’m grateful to have a child who is interested in creative pursuits. It’s a blessing to be able to provide her with those opportunities. Likewise, taking her out to dinner once in a while won’t break my budget.

In reviewing my average day, the reality is that each item is cause for joy. Even cleaning my disgusting gutters? Absolutely, because a few years ago, I wasn’t sure I could even keep the house.

So when that anxious, annoyed voice starts to drone inside my head, I remind myself to refocus. When I view things from the proper perspective, I can only choose gratitude.

Often I turn to the apostle Paul. Immersing myself in his letters to early Christians helps me understand the reality of my situation. His world was fraught with incredible uncertainty, life-threatening dangers and the knowledge that his rewards wouldn’t come in this life. Yet his letters are punctuated by his conscious decision to be grateful.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:16–18, Paul tells these early believers, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

The Christians of ancient Thessalonica could view themselves two ways: as “children of light and children of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5), or as an insular group persecuted for their religious beliefs.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” I read this and am humbled. I live in relative safety. My beliefs don’t put me at odds with the prevailing culture. Why have I ever chosen to be ungrateful? (back to top)

 A different view

Ultimately, what matters isn’t what I’m upset about in the moment. I may dislike the situation, but it doesn’t define me.

Instead, my identity is shaped by what I learn and how I act on this knowledge. What I have realized is that when I make a situation about me—what I want or what I believe I deserve—I can’t see my way to being grateful. Gratitude requires a big-picture view, not an inward focus—and an ability to stand outside a situation and view it from different perspectives.

How would someone without a car react to my meltdown over a dead battery? What counsel would an empty-nester provide me when I complain that my schedule is crammed with kid stuff?

Part of that big-picture view is understanding that even if current problems seem never-ending, they’re not. A moment passes, and I remind myself that it doesn’t have to be labeled “good” or “bad.” This helps me see the opportunities for gratitude that arise from troubled times.

My goal is to be fully grateful—always. To remain focused, I reflect on lessons, influences and examples of why it is necessary.

It’s clear that my parents intended to raise me to be grateful. They didn’t have an easy job. I was an epic whiner; they had a strict “no whiners” policy. I believed they didn’t “get me.” I was sure that a lot of my problems would evaporate if they’d stop being so different.

I don’t mean normal different, like acting weird around my friends. I mean different-different, like eschewing much of the cool mom and dad stuff that would have provided me a fast track to my concept of acceptable. They ignored a lot of conventional wisdom. They had odd ideas, which they talked about—in front of people. They seemed to revel in their strangeness.

Inevitably, this made me different. That’s lonely. Scary, too. Most of the time, it hurts. (back to top)

‘You’ll be fine’

Mom and Dad were sympathetic, and I wanted to bask in that sympathy. However, they’d quickly shift to how my situation might be better than another. For example: “Just do (insert horrifying activity here). You’ll be fine.” “I’m your mom; I don’t have to worry about what everyone else is doing.” “Stop whining.”

And “I don’t have to be sorry; I’m your dad,” was a reminder that character must trump street cred.

Slowly, it dawned on me: My parents sacrificed a lot to marry. They worked hard to stay together. They wanted a better world for their kids, so they raised us to expect different things. They knew their kids probably wouldn’t blend in, so they insisted that was a blessing. I’m grateful, even if it took some time to get there.

In her own way, my maternal grandma also contributes to my understanding gratitude. She’s something of a pessimism connoisseur. By her estimation, “the bright side” is a trap. Her belief is summed up in a plaque on her stove: “Be careful of the light at the end of the tunnel; it might just be a train!”

As a child, I’d mention graduating from high school someday or other future events. Grandma would chuckle and say, “Oh, I’ll probably be dead by then.” I understood. Grandma has debilitating rheumatoid arthritis and other difficulties.

Still, I insisted that she wouldn’t be dead. In my view, my beloved grandmother was and is full of life—funny, smart and engaging.

But she said, “I’ll probably be dead by then” so often that it became a joke. She meant it. I accepted it, even as I scoffed quietly.

Grandma loved my dad as if he were her own. That was another joke; he was her favorite. But he died suddenly and didn’t see his children graduate from high school. This left Grandma distraught, and she took my brother and me aside. (back to top)

The narrative changed

She told us she would stop saying, “I’ll probably be dead by then,” because she realized it was wrong. It sounded ungrateful, she said. She would see us graduate from high school and more.

In the more than 20 years since, Grandma has celebrated graduations, weddings, anniversaries, more grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Those years haven’t been without pain. When Grandpa died two years ago, “I’ll probably be dead by then” returned. Now, she sometimes avoids making plans a few months out because, “I’ll probably be dead by then.”

She misses Grandpa, she tells me; she’s ready to die. I struggle. I want to relieve her of this sadness. I want to take away pain. I want her to focus on all the things that still bring her joy.

Often, I tell her I’m grateful for her close bond with my 11-year-old daughter, Zoey. Like my brother and me at that age, Zoey has enjoyed many long summer days talking, playing and pretending with Grandma.

Grandma is exceptionally creative, fun and interesting. She always made me feel like the most important person in the world. This was a blessing of my childhood. I’m thrilled that Zoey now has the same.

I’m also conscious of what will come. Grandma will die, and for Zoey, it will be too soon. I believe it’s years in the offing; she is spry and generally healthy. When I was 11, I believed she’d live as long as it would take me to let her go. I still do. (back to top)

The gift of memories

I know Zoey has received the “I’ll probably be dead by then” line. At one time, this greatly upset her. Death is unfathomable to most children, as it should be. Age is immaterial when Zoey is with Grandma. Their time together is what matters, not its conclusion.

Zoey eventually became overwhelmed by the thought of losing Grandma—this best friend. The joke isn’t funny, she said. However, she didn’t want Grandma to know it upset her, because she understood, telling me, “Great-Grandma says this because she misses Great-Grandpa. I just don’t like it.”

So I told Zoey the truth: She will attend Grandma’s funeral. I can’t predict when that will be, and I don’t want to. We can enjoy her now. I was blessed to spend a lot of time with Grandma. I grew up believing I’d tell my kids about this amazing person; I never dreamed our current situation was a possibility. We will be sad. But Zoey will have something special: many wonderful memories of a beloved friend, faithful companion and nurturing elder. Death can’t change that.

As for me, I told Zoey that Grandma’s death-talk always annoyed me. However, I’m grateful she did it. It taught me that it’s OK to talk about scary things. It made me an optimist. In addition, “I’ll probably be dead by then” helped me grieve for my father. Zoey was understandably skeptical. I feared that I’d only offered silly pontificating.

On her 85th birthday, Grandma’s friend visited. It resulted in several days of laughter. Toward the visit’s end, Grandma’s friend asked if she had a good birthday. Grandma said, “Well, I had really hoped I’d die on my birthday. I thought that would have wrapped it up nicely.”

Panicked, I tried to think of something I could say. I wanted to acknowledge her feelings and point out there are those who would have appreciated more time with family and friends.

In the meantime, Zoey spoke up: “I love you. I don’t want you to go anywhere. Who will I hang out with in the summer?”

A brief exchange followed. Grandma softened, though she stood her ground. She also allowed a subject change.

Grandma still talks about dying, and Zoey still tells her what she thinks about that.

Recently, Zoey insisted Grandma just focus on the fun they were having. Finally, Grandma asked, “Well, what would you do if you were 85? That’s a long time to live.”

Zoey said, “I’d be planning my 90th birthday party. I’m going to live way past 100.”

Karris Golden is a writer and speaker from northeast Iowa. She has written “On Faith,” a weekly column for The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, since January 1999. (back to top)


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