I was sitting next to two men recently in a coffeehouse and one of them was complaining (whining) about his divorce.
“I hate my life. My ex is killing me in the divorce, I can’t find a job, I feel like sh*t all the time, my kids don’t call, I’m so depressed, my life sucks. I miss my old life. We traveled all over the world. My life was so much better and now it’s awful, I hate it.”
I was curious about what his friend would say and leaned in closer, without appearing too obvious. I thought he might say, “Yeah, your ex is a bitch and you really got screwed. Poor you.”
But he didn’t. He said, “You know what? I’ve heard this from you for a year. You are living in the ‘poor me’ for too long. You’ve got a home, you’ve got pretty good health, you’re not old, there’s plenty more life ahead of you. Can’t you find some gratitude for all that you do have?”
I wanted to jump on the table and dance because I was so glad this friend told him what I have learned myself, the hard way. Gratitude is one of the best tools in life, especially when you feel like life is about as rough as it can be. As a friend of mine always reminds me, “The glass is both half empty and half full.”
The first time I really got the concept of gratitude came at one of the lowest points of my life. It was 2009, during the summer of grief, as another friend of mine called her first summer after separating from her ex. I was about as low as I had ever been. The previous December, I’d lost my work, thanks to the economic downturn. In April, my ex and I separated. In May, my 21-year-old daughter told me she wanted to move 3,000 away and in June my mother died. I knew I had to move — soon — I couldn’t afford to stay where I was — and I was experiencing the kind of grief I’d never even knew was possible. My heart hurt. Or maybe it was gas, I’m not sure, but I was dragging myself around, not having a clue how I was going to survive so much loss.
I called a good friend of mine, we’ll name him Jerry. He and I had worked together for a long time and he’d been sober for 30 years and was a respected member of AA. I said, “Jerry, I kind of want to kill myself. Not really, but I’m feeling so scared. I’m terrified about what’s going to happen, how I’m going to find a job, and move, when all I feel like doing is curling up in the fetal position.”
“Make a gratitude list,” Jerry told me.
I thought I’d mis-heard him. “What?”
“A gratitude list. List everything in your life you are grateful for.”
“Seriously? That is your advice to me at this moment in my life, when I feel like taking every single Ambien, Midol, Advil, Pepto Bismol and any other drug in my medicine cabinet and ending my life. I’m telling you the pain is too much.”
“List 50 things you are grateful for and call me back. Bye.” And he hung up.
He hung up.
So I went home and I did as I was told. I listed 50 things I was grateful for and it wasn’t easy. I was grateful for my daughter, my friends, my beloved dogs, my health, that it was summer…but then at the end it was nail clippers, peanut butter and air conditioning. But you know what?
I felt better. I called Jerry back and I said, “You know, I do feel a little better. Thank you.” And he said, “Great! Talk soon.”
He didn’t have time for my whining. But what he did do was get me out of the hole I was in. I recently heard this quote from William James ,”I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing.”
My divorce was a nightmare and I wouldn’t wish anyone the hell I went through, but you know what? It made me stronger. It made me stand up to my ex and state my desires. It made me go to court and talk to the judge (who I found out later was just about to retire and really didn’t care what happened in any of her cases).
It gave me a new life. It unblocked feelings that had been suppressed for so long. In fact, I can now cry not just in sad movies, but in life. It’s a huge relief to feel and not just anger, or fear, but to feel empathy and compassion.
Recently I saw an interview with Thich Nhat Hahn in which he said the first mantra of love is: “I see you. I am here with you.” I believe that is true — being seen and heard in difficult times are important. But it’s also important to move on eventually.
These days I have many tools to help me in life. I do work I love. I meditate, I exercise, I read everything I can get my hands on about psychology and spirituality. I dance for fun. I date (getting more serious about dating). As Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
And I would add — be grateful. You only find out what you’re made of when you are tested. The obstacles on the path, are the path.