“When I was young, I had to choose between the life of being and the life of doing. And I leapt at the latter like a trout to a fly. But each deed you do, each act, binds you to itself and to its consequences, and makes you act again and yet again. Then very seldom do you come upon a space, a time like this, between act and act, when you may stop and simply be. Or wonder who, after all, you are.”
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Farthest Shore
The first time I heard someone suggest that I might consider cultivating an "Attitude of Gratitude", I wanted to smack the person upside the head. How condescending, I thought. How utterly idiotic. Who did this person think he was to offer me smug platitudes in response to my suffering?
It took a few years and a lot more suffering on my part (much of it self-inflicted) before I was willing to entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe, he was on to something. My modus operandi was, for far too long, to look at all that was going wrong in my life, put all my intellectual energy into finding solutions, and then trying to fix everything - to my satisfaction, of course.
For somebody who thought she was so smart, I turned out to be dumb as a post. Where did I get the idea that the world was supposed to arrange itself to suit me? Over-thinking and over-reacting were strategies I applied over and over again, and it was always a great shock to me when things just didn't work out quite the way I wanted them to.
I still find myself doing this but these days I have better tools to deal with it. One of them is that damn "Attitude of Gratitude."
There is a very simple exercise that I was taught to get started and it's called the Gratitude List. (I know that some of you are already very familiar with it.) Instead of mulling over your problems and leaping into action to fix all that is going wrong, find a quiet place and think about what is going right in your little corner of the world - things for which, once you consider them for two seconds, you are genuinely grateful for. Then write a few of them down and send them to a friend. Do this daily and after awhile you just might feel better. I know I do.
Why does it work for me? I have no idea. It's one of those things that I was asked to try, and after literally laughing in the face of the person who proposed it, I gave in and was pleasantly surprised by the results.
It sure doesn't fix anything but I find that by acknowledging the good, the bad loses some of its power over me. I think that once you've armed yourself with a more balanced perspective, it is much harder for your head to lead you into dark places during the day.
My gratitude list changes every day and sometimes it's a real struggle to find the space between acts, between thoughts, and find the flashlight or the bright candle in the dark neighborhood that is my head. Ah, how quickly I forget because there are two blazingly obvious things that are always shining bright right there in front of me.
The first is that I am still sober after nearly 4 yours in recovery. Here I am in Japan going to cocktails and dinners where the alcohol flows freely and glasses of wine magically appear in front of me and I have no desire to drink. That's a frigging miracle right there. I feel no sense of triumph or personal accomplishment over this, just boundless gratitude for the gift of sobriety and the worldwide community that supports me. (If you are interested in knowing more about that, send me an email.)
The second is relatively good health. Two years ago I had no hair and no fingernails and I tipped the scales at 54 kilos. I was stuck in my apartment in Versailles and could hardly walk from my bed to the couch. When I wasn't being poisoned by chemo, I was being radiated under a particle accelerator. (And am I worried about radiation exposure from Fukushima? Nope. For me that ship has already sailed.) Today I'm living in yet another country, walking the city, trying to speak a new language, enjoying my new rice cooker and my high-tech bathtub. Do I still feel lost and a bit lonely in this new place? Do I grumble about the pills and the PET scans? You bet. But the fact I'm still here at all and can walk, talk and travel is another miracle for which a moment or two of gratitude every single day seems entirely appropriate.
Now that I've written out my grat list for the day and have adjusted my attitude (instead of trying to adjust the world to my tastes and inclinations), I'm going to take a bath and make some biscuits.