The Gift of Gratitude: Appreciating Every Experience in Your Life
The Good, the Bad, the Indifferent
Every experience is a gift. We all go through personal tragedies and triumphs, but the meaning of life’s events are assigned by us, the people experiencing them. We can choose to celebrate through our difficulties. In the same way, we can choose to be indifferent through the best of times. I’ve seen people walk through life terminally ill with a perpetual smile on their faces, bringing joy and inspiration to all those around them. I’ve also seen people with great health and incredible opportunities take it all for granted and self-destruct. We are what we think. It is ALWAYS a choice. Our experiences do not dictate the quality of our lives or the amount or depth of joy we derive from them. We can choose to be miserable in our existences, or we can choose to be grateful for every unexpected blessing, every silver lining, and every act of grace God gives us in the midst of our suffering.
Where were you?
I won’t deny there have been times in my life I’ve asked God this very question. Where were you when I was barely 10 years old and my step-father nearly beat the life out of me? Where were you when my mother left me when I was only eleven? Where were you when my alcoholic father spent all his money on beer, and we were starving on the verge of eviction?
God was there, but God was silent. What kind of a cruel and unjust God would stay so silent in a world so torn apart by evil, tragedy, and suffering? It’s easy to feel that way. I know the feeling well. However, feeling that way doesn’t change the experience or the circumstance. I had an idea one day as a child that perhaps God was speaking the entire time I was going through those horrible moments, but not in the usual way and that’s why I didn’t hear Him. I was expecting him to talk like a human and say STOP DOING THAT TO HER in a commanding voice, booming it from the sky. What I didn’t expect was for Him to be talking to me silently through the kindness of a young Social Worker with a soothing face who remembered my name and gave me a teddy bear at Christmas or the concern of a wife of one of my father’s coworkers who took me bra shopping at 13 to avoid the awkwardness of not having a mother in a house with only boys or the extra helping of beans from the Salvation Army soup kitchen on a day I had not eaten anything because we had no money to eat.
True, I could look at those experiences in my life and just feel bitter. I could say there was nothing good about the abuse or neglect I suffered as a child. I could sit with my suffering fully, let it be a companion to me, and see it for what it really is, a personal tragedy.
Where do I go from there? Isn’t it a dead end? I could live my life focused on all the negative aspects of every situation, but it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I don’t want to be a hamster in a wheel. I want my life to open up to promise and opportunity. I want to be able to take my experiences and run with them to make this life an incredible journey of survival and triumph. Gratitude is the only pair of shoes I can put on that will get me there. When I think back about those challenging times in my life, I remember the fear, the sadness of loss, and the hunger, but I also remember the grace that I was beaten, but I was not buried, that I was abandoned, but I was not uncared for, that I was hungry, but I did not starve. And I have gratitude for that. The gift of gratitude in those situations has also given me a greater gift of compassion toward others who are poor and discarded. I feel their pain when I hear their stories as I remember my own. It’s a depth of compassion that only comes from truly knowing a human experience for yourself. As a result, I choose to help others whenever I can. I love to give people food and children toys in particular. There is a special joy in it for me to see a person nourished or a child’s face light up in happiness for a moment. I give to them what was given to me, and I remember the feeling myself gratefully. The benefit in suffering is that it gives us an opportunity to show grace and have gratitude in our humanity toward one another.
Two Experiences that Changed Me
I have two stories from my adult life, things that happened to me in recent years which profoundly remind me to this day to never feel sorry for myself or take a day of my life for granted.
It was almost seven years ago when I had just gone through a divorce. I was homeless and jobless at the moment. I had just enough money to get by for a short time and was sleeping on a generous stranger’s futon. I was lucky enough to have a car and about 100 dollars in my bank account at the moment. I was being as frugal as possible not knowing if the temp agency would have more work for me the next week. Of course, I was feeling sorry for myself. Who doesn’t when they’re down on their luck like that? It was a little late in the evening around 9pm, and I had just gone to the grocery store and bought a loaf of bread, a small packet of lunch meat, cheese slices, bananas, a few apples, and a few oranges.
I was low on gas as well so I stopped at the gas pump before heading to my guest lodging. As I was standing under the orangey glow of the street light with moths circling around a bit higher above my head, a man and a woman walked out of the shadows and began approaching me slowly. I felt a bit of panic rising up in me because of the lateness of the hour and the fact no one else was around. The man was dingy and lanky, hanging back several feet and allowed the woman to approach me alone. Her hair was stringy and dirty, her face was worn and tired, but there was something timid about her stance. She approached me cautiously, but a bit boldly and said, “Please, could you give us five dollars? We haven’t eaten in days, and we’re so hungry. We just want to get a hamburger or something.”
I could have been cynical and maybe I was at first, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t have any cash on me. I explained to the woman my situation that I was also unemployed and broke with barely anything to live on. Then it occurred to me suddenly that I had the groceries in my backseat. I told her, “Actually, I just went to the store and bought a little bit of food. You can make a sandwich for yourself if you’d like.” She declined the sandwich shyly and said it was alright. I felt badly about not being able to help them. Wanting them not to leave empty handed, I said, “Oh, I have some fruit.”
I will never forget the look on the woman’s face when I offered her the fruit. Her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Fruit! Oh my gosh, I haven’t had fruit in forever.” She even turned to the man who had slowly approached the car at her insistence and said to him excitedly, “She has fruit!” He smiled then too. I gave them everything, the entire grocery bag of fruit. I have never seen more gratitude displayed in any human being I’ve ever encountered than I did that day as the woman was holding the fruit in her arms, cradling it like treasure. They thanked me over and over and walked away as though I had just given them the world. To put it in perspective, I once bought my younger brother a car when I had the means, and he complained about the size of the backseat. God spoke to me through that homeless woman’s gratitude in my own time of need showing me that there is always someone suffering more than you and there is always someone you can help no matter how hard a time you think you’re going through.
It was over three years ago when I had a general woman’s health check-up at a free medical clinic. The doctor smoothed his rough fingers over my right breast and said, “Can you feel that?” I said, “No. Feel what?” He took my own fingers under his and guided them just right of my nipple and said, “The lump.” Everything in my body went numb. I couldn’t feel anything. He proceeded to tell me it was the size of a pencil eraser and should be biopsied to know if it was breast cancer.
I was already going through a difficult time financially. I had a job, but it wasn’t a good one. I was barely making ends meet and couldn’t afford health insurance. What was I going to do? I couldn’t even handle the news. It was a shock to my system. What if…what if…what if… I kept feeling my breast, trying to feel where my own body had betrayed me. The stress of it was too much for me to deal with. For the first six months I didn’t even talk about it. I refused to believe it was even there. Then my mind started playing tricks on me, my chest started aching constantly and I thought sometimes it was soreness from exercise, but other times I thought cancer quietly to myself.
During this same time I met a young woman whose mother was literally dying of Stage 4 breast cancer. The girl was only around 15 when her mother was diagnosed and had watched all the ups and downs of treatment along with the deterioration of her mother’s body in the losing battle she was fighting. I entered the girl’s life about a year before I was told of my own lump and was there a year after that to comfort the girl when her mother died. The girl was only 19 then. The strangest grace of the situation is that her mother and I happened to have the same first name.
The night her mother died was a strange one as well. I was baking brownies and making a casserole to take to their house. I had never met the girl’s mother, and the girl told me she wanted me to meet her mother before she died. They knew it could happen at any time so she was urgent about my coming to visit right away. I was supposed to go the next morning so I was making the food the night before. After I had prepared the food and put it away, I went to my room to get ready for bed. Suddenly I felt something troubling my spirit. I began to pace my room, nervously meditating and praying for her family. After about half an hour of pacing and praying, I felt weak in the legs and dropped to my knees. I felt a sharp pain deep inside me, and I also felt a silent scream in my gut. Tears began slipping involuntarily down my face. After a few minutes, I stood up and felt so tired that I immediately laid down and fell asleep. I awoke in the morning and checked my phone for the time. I saw that I had a text message from the girl. It said, “Don’t worry about coming over. Mom died.” She had sent it at 3am so I wasn’t sure of the details. When I saw my friend again, she told me her mother had actually died the night before, and it was right around the time I had felt that sharp pain in me. Before I even told her my experience, she also told me that she was by her mother’s side, holding her hand the entire time, and that she had screamed uncontrollably when her mother took her last breath. I later told my friend my experience, and she found comfort in it knowing that God had sent me to break her fall. I was able to be there for her during the early months of her loss and help her through the grieving process. It was more poignant for her that I was there with a lump also in my breast and the same name as her mother’s.
I lived with this lump inside me for almost three years, not knowing if it was killing me. It became a true gift. Before the lump, I’d say I was wallowing in self-pity. I was depressed and living in the past, feeling sorry for myself. The lump forced me out of the past and into the present. Suddenly I understood how each day could be my last and how I’d taken all my days for granted before then. Watching my friend lose her mother to breast cancer also made me aware of the potential death awaiting me. We all die sometime, but few of us have to face death when we are young and deal with the idea of our mortality. The lump forced me to deal with my mortality and in doing so took away my fear of death. I learned to accept it as an inevitable part of who I am. We are all going to die and none of us knows when. Living on the edge of death gave me a new perspective. I stopped being afraid and started living.
The lump also taught me gratitude. Once again, here I was fretting about a lump the size of a pencil eraser when my friend’s mother was dying of Stage 4 incurable breast cancer. Kind of puts it in perspective, doesn’t it? I could have sat around feeling sorry for myself, but instead I used my ailment as an opportunity to connect with and help someone else who had it much worse than I did. In that experience, the lump transformed itself from the source of my suffering to becoming my greatest teacher. I learned a lot from that lump. I received a clean bill of health recently, but once you’ve had the experience, a cancer scare, it haunts you. Taking a day of your life or your health for granted never happens again.
I Want to Change the World
Maybe it’s audacious of me to want to make a difference in the lives of other people. Nevertheless, I’ve always desired to do just that and use my own experiences to be of service to others. I will never be one of those people who just accept the evil in this world or give power to the negative aspects of experiences, using the negative as an excuse to be less, to live less, or to do less. We were made to be more, live more, and do more than we allow ourselves or give ourselves credit for.
© 2013 maramerce