Years ago I watched a film with Demi Moore, called Private Jane, in which the following scene took place: soldiers lying in the surf of the beach, doing sit ups (head and legs up at the same time) while the salty water kept on flooding over their heads every other minute. Standing over them, an apparently sadistic sergeant said something like this: “do you feel the pain? Yes? Good! Be grateful that you feel the pain! It means that you are alive.” Now, I suspect that at the time, Jane wasn’t feeling very grateful (or alive for that matter), but as the film eventually showed, there was method in the meanness, and the harsh training made her physically and mentally strong to face the rest of the challenges imagined for her by the scriptwriter.
Something similar happens to us in our everyday. For every bad thing that happens, there is something to be grateful for -although we perhaps cannot grasp it at the time. You may see gratitude as a happy-clappy-rose-tinted-glasses trait which denies reality; or you may see it as window cleaner which allows to see things clearly after the sand storm. I choose the latter option. A friend once told me that in Chinese the word for crisis and opportunity is the same. I believe that the Chinese are in the right track with this thinking, and gratitude is one of the attitudes that can help us see the opportunity in the crisis.
Gratitude can save us from arrogance and pride and put us in touch with humbleness. By doing this, it helps us see how we are inter-connected to others, present, past and even future. Gratitude allows to see those helpers who have always walked with us, from the teacher who gave us a second chance by letting us rewrite a paper, to the old lady who listened to our problems while waiting for the bus, helping us unload some hurt, discontent, annoyance and confusion. I believe it was Newton who said, “I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” For all his genius, he understood that if not for the hard work and observations of previous scientists and philosophers, his own work would perhaps never come to pass -or certainly it would have taken much longer to reach the level that it did.
With this interconnection in mind, we can also find inspiration in accomplished people, who started pretty much where we are right now, if not a couple of steps down, on the ladder to success, and made it all the way to the top. If they can make it, why not us? Their example and lessons can serve as a shoulder to stand on, as well as our parents and ancestors and their own experiences and world views; our friends, community and times we live can also serve as support. Our life-lessons, values and beliefs. Gratitude remind us that we don’t have to feel alone, living in a hostile world; but we can see the world as a generous place, full of helping people who, directly or indirectly, are giving us a push forwards.
A continuous practice of gratitude is one of the most powerful things you can do to change the world, the world that matters -your world. Author Antony Robbins says that attention follows what we focus and what we focus becomes reality -an idea echoed also in many spiritualties, like the Hawaiian Huna, and esoteric beliefs, such as the Law of Attraction. It makes perfect sense if you think about it. A person who finds many reasons to be grateful for during her day, has to be in a better mood and hold a more promising, positive view of life than one who doesn’t. Imagine you are in a bus going up a mountain on a winding, narrow road. One side of the bus all you get to see is the dark, barren, hard rock of the mountain; on the other side, a sunny valley full of trees and farms and people weaving from their houses.
No matter which side you decide to put your attention to, the bus is going to take you to your destination; there still will be a few bumps on the road, a few breakdowns, a few stubborn sheeps on the way that need to be moved. Yet your experience will be very different depending on which side of the bus you decide to concentrate on. The more often you take time to be grateful about something, the more inclined you will be to look at the sunny side of the bus, the more smiling children saying “hello” will pass your way, the more inspiring and beautiful the scenery will be. With gratitude, the more you give, the more you have, as Shakespeare’s Juliet would say. The more you find reasons to be grateful for, the more you realized how rich you are, how prosperous you are, how lucky you are, how blessed you are, how loved you are. And as you may know from the Law of Attraction and other esoteric wisdom, like attracts like.
So be grateful for your ceiling, with all its leaks, because it keeps your sheltered. Be grateful for your hospital bed, because with all its possible faults, you are receiving care. Be grateful for this political system we live in, because with all its flaws it is better than some alternatives, and can always be perfected. Give thanks for that glass of water you are holding, because it says that you are a person rich enough to buy a glass, lucky enough to get water from a tap, and when you bought that glass, be it in a department store or charity shop, you became a blessing to someone else. Be grateful for that bird song you heard as you walked back home, or for the shy smile an old lady gave you, probably thinking you were someone else. Be grateful for that wonder that is your body, for the air on your lungs, for the brand new day that is coming, pregnant with new chances. For whatever, for everything, just say “thanks.”
Now, something odd happens when you start applying gratitude to all the aspects of your life. You find that enemies (be they people, circumstances or events) are really blessings in a terrifying disguise, without which you would not be who you are today, ready to launch into an even more blessed and beautiful life. Where would Harry Potter be without Voldemort? Happy with his parents having a normal childhood, you would say. Maybe. But his parents could have died in a car crash and poor Harry would have grown up in his aunt’s abusive home, without the gifts of Hogwarts. Or perhaps he would have gone to Hogwarts just the same and been an average student and then an average wizard, without the character, power and wisdom that his seven years of facing the Dark Lord bestowed upon him.
Scientists have discovered that one of the driving forces behind our evolution is the virus. Cells and viruses have been dancing a strange waltz since the beginning of life. Viruses do not reproduce as such, so the only way they have to survive is to take over healthy cells, and to this end they have developed certain strategies. Cells have learned this scheming behaviours the hard way and have adapted and changed to counter attack the viruses, who, as you may have guessed, have also adapted and changed to counter the counter attack of cells. What science is concluding is that, had the cells not been forced to change to fight off viruses, we may have ended up being totally different creatures. We may still be happy single-cell life forms somewhere in a hot spring. Whatever your spiritual beliefs, if you have any, I think it is fair to admit that in the story of viruses and cells, we can apply that saying of “bad things don’t happen to you, they happen for you,” providing that, like the cell, we learn, adapt and change. And for all that, I believe we have to be grateful. I, for one, would rather be a very complex human trying to figure out my existence than an apparently happy-clappy amoeba floating in a dirty pond.
You see, once you accept and become grateful for where you are right now in your life, with all its wonderful possibilities to come and all your present blessings, you realise that there is nowhere else you would rather be. How then can you hate or hold resentment for that storm, that accident, that blow, that kick, that abandonment, that tear, that shame that brought you here? Was it nice to go through all those hard experiences? No. Was it fair? Probably not. Should we hold hands with our aggressors and give them kisses on the cheek to thank them for the wonderful lessons? Maybe, one day, when we have grown spiritually enough to do it sincerely, but not yet, no. But although it may be hard, if not impossible at the moment, to thanks the big adversaries in our lives, let’s start by expressing our gratitude to the small ones, and take it from there, for, eventually, the continuous practice of gratitude will help us become a more conscious, loving and happy human being.
© Karem Barratt 2015