It can be astoundingly hard to remember to be grateful. I’m not sure what to blame it on. I don’t think our media or even the culture it represents does a particularly good job of reminding us of our blessings. Then too, it’s been a tough couple of years. The pandemic, global warming, the ubiquitous anger. There are plenty of good reasons to be angry. And it’s not hard to find them. But I think there are way, way more reasons to be grateful, and they’re actually just as easy to find if you only take a moment to look for them. The essay below is from my book, Into the Black Sea: Stories of Darkness and Light. I wrote it when I was experiencing a lot of anger about my circumstances and this Thanksgiving seems like a good time to republish:
“Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?”
Well, it’s Thanksgiving, so here I am counting the blessings you’ve given me. I have to be honest and say that counting blessings has been kind of tough the last couple of years. It’s hard to feel real gratitude when I feel so distracted by the spectacular, attention-grabbing disasters you’ve been throwing my way. I think I’ll have a much easier time being grateful for the blessings once I’ve gotten my feelings about the not-blessings off my chest. Psychology researcher and clinician, John Gottman, suggests that successful relationships have at least five times as many positive encounters as negatives. I’m certainly keen on establishing a successful relationship with you, Life, so I’ll make sure to keep that ratio in mind once I get around to being grateful.
But first, Life, here are a few places you’ve fallen short, and for which I am definitely not thankful:
- A handful of my family and friends have lengthy lists of ailments that nobody should have to suffer. None of us will be thanking you for those, Life. Even if they result in “growth opportunities”.
- The three colonoscopies in one day was a bit over the top. Descriptors for the experience practically write themselves. None of them are synonyms with the word “blessings”. This didn’t make me a better person either. So, ixnay on the anksthay.
- About my tumor: fuck yourself in a dirty toilet.
There. Three “gifts” you’ve given me, Life, for which I am not thankful at all. Not a comprehensive list but it does help clear the pipes a bit. So, with that out of the way, here’s the stuff I am thankful for. I know, I know: John Gottman, 5:1.
- Is it cool to be a grandfather or what? Everyone told me it would be, but I had no idea. The intimate touch of little hands. The wonder of the world relived a third (kid, parent, grandparent) time! The reminder of how precious our mistakes are.
- And how fun to watch my kid be a parent. Talk about your joie de vivre! And thanks to the cameras these days I get to see a lot of it even when I’m not around. It certainly helps that my kid is a veritable Diane Arbus. The mise-en-scène employed in the shadow pictures of the two of them – wow.
- I have some pretty amazing friends as well. More than I deserve. As I steer through all the curves you’ve thrown my way, Life, I’ve been way better off for the friends I have. I appreciate every one of them. (I would like to point out here that I could, with complete justification, count each friend as a blessing which would totally blow away Gottman’s 5:1 ratio. But I’m going to strive for being an overachiever.)
- I live in an awesome and beautiful place on the planet, blessed with a staggering number of lakes and forests. I can look out any window and see postcard views –woods and water, fields fecund with flowers, stunning snowscapes – every day of the year. Wow.
- The act of searching for – and finding – the hidden, transcendent beauty in every day is one of the great pleasures of my life and an endless source of Haikus:
These roiling waters
Can wash me under their waves
And hold me afloat
- My Zazen practice has been a lifesaver and a graduate course in compassion and love. I am grateful to have it.
- I have the extraordinary good luck to have an amazing Tai Chi teacher, imparting to me the legacy of hundreds of years of teachings from the great Tai Chi masters of the past.
- This will sound weird, but I am grateful for my improved ability to empathize. An ability particularly useful in caring for my ailing father. I know this improvement is partly due to the miserable life experiences I’ve recently been through. That does not mean they were a good idea.
- It is a compounded joy to share my joys with others. I used to share music. Now I share, among other things, chess. And pictures of my grandkid. I love sharing.
- I am gratified that we renovated our living room with basswood paneling and a new picture window before we had any idea how much we would be spending on medical bills.
- I have had many, many occasions to be appreciative of the everyday saints that have helped me navigate the befuddling bureaucracies, tangled paperwork, and confounding frustrations of getting medical care.
- While I could easily live without it, I’m pretty glad I have a cell phone. I love the chess app, the pictures our kid sends, and the daily recap of Cubs’ games.
- I’ve saved the best for last. I am amazed, every day, at the astounding good fortune of having the wife I have. I have thought, and thought, and thought, and I still don’t understand how I came to be sharing you, Life, with such a consistently kind, considerate and wonderful woman. She’s walked this road with me with unflinching good will and never once shown any inclination to smite me with even one colonoscopy. I’ll tell you what, Life, you could learn a thing or two from her.
Well, there it is. 5:1. I don’t know if John Gottman would approve or not. But I know one thing, Life. You are one complex dude. How can you be so horrible and so exquisite? On the other hand, how can I be so angry and so thankful? I’ll be happier if I clue in on your good bits and let go of the bad ones. That’s not always so easy to do, but I’m trying, Life. I suspect that I will eventually find a way to be grateful for this dark path that I am on and did not ask for. But not yet. I’ll let you know when that happens, Life. In the mean time, Happy Thanksgiving, and don’t eat too much.