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The Secret of Thankful

23 comments | November 20th, 2012

(by Mir)

I don’t know about all of you, but I’m spending a good part of this week getting ready to host Thanksgiving dinner. For me this entails a complicated process of meal planning, grocery shopping, pre-emptive experimentation and ahead-of-time cooking, more grocery shopping, house cleaning, freaking out about cooking, looking for the serving pieces I only use once a year, running to the grocery story for that last thing I need, and finally, the meal itself.

Does that sound like I’m complaining? I’m not, not really. Because this year, I am absolutely at peace with all of it.

We talk a good game, most of us, about being thankful. This month, in particular, with Thanksgiving coming up, I see many of my friends and family doing a “daily thankfulness” practice on Facebook or their blogs. The idea is that when you stop to be thankful, you are happier overall and more grateful for the good things. And that makes sense, I guess, though I worry that making it a “thing” makes it yet another exercise rather than a true spiritual practice.

But I’ve done my fair share of this; said grace before a meal and meant it, tried to “be more appreciative” in various capacities, sure. And even while I was doing those things, I was still grousing over inconsequential annoyances, wishing for something different than what I had right in front of me, and generally falling prey to a whopping case of the “if only”s.

I cracked the code entirely by accident. In fact, the truth is that I didn’t do it, at all. I just had the opportunity to really see what the “if only”s can do to a person, and you probably already know this, but it isn’t pretty.

This year has been monumentally awful for our family. Sickness, death, and what sometimes feels like endless struggling has plagued us. I’ve absolutely done my share of “why us?” through all of this, believe me. And I kept on going, as best I could, because I had to. I worked. I parented. I was going through the motions, more often than not. I tried, sure. But my heart wasn’t in it, a lot of the time. Was I lucky? Sure, compared to someone homeless, starving, abandoned… yes, of course. But I didn’t feel lucky.

Recently I watched exactly what happens when a person allows themselves to be eaten up by “it’s not fair.” I’ve always loved the description of a person being “eaten up” by difficult feelings, because that’s exactly what it is. If you let them, ugly feelings will consume you in a way no less damaging than a fire. Watching it happen to a person is no less horrifying. The worst part is the staunch RIGHTNESS the afflicted clearly feels. They are RIGHT and their pain is WRONG and they are being eaten up by the UNFAIRNESS.

I’ve always believed that happiness is a choice, in the truest sense. It can be awfully hard to choose happy when life keeps knocking you down, though. What I found this year is the corollary, which is that happiness is kinder—kinder to yourself, kinder to your loved ones, kinder to the world. And by “happiness” I don’t necessarily mean goofy-grinning-at-the-fair kind of emotion, either. It just means choosing to be your own skin, in your own space, and accept that some things are hard, but they make the sweet things even sweeter.

Could I slump into a heap and refuse to get out of bed and cite the unfairness of the world as my justification, right now? Could I lash out at others, insist they deserve it, rail at the universe and claim it’s only because my lot in life is such a heavy burden? I suppose. You might not even blame me. Truth be told, I’ve done that before, and it wasn’t even that long ago. But it doesn’t make the world more fair. And it doesn’t make it more bearable. All it does is make a difficult time even worse. All it does is perpetuate the kind of ugliness that vexes me in the first place.

Life is hard. I fear for those I love, and I hurt for those I can’t protect or heal. But somehow I’ve learned that wrapping that hardship around me like a familiar old blanket does nothing but make everything worse. Some days are hard. Our heartbreak isn’t even close to being over, and there will undoubtedly be days when I do pull the covers over my head and wish the world away… for a little bit. In the meantime, just as I can’t stop the bad stuff, I can’t keep the sun from shining, I can’t stop my son from dancing into my office to make me laugh, there’s absolutely no stopping my dog from being a joyous goofball over the dumbest things (“ZOMG A DUST MOTE!!”), and there is love enough in my life to hold me up when I falter. I wish life was easier. I am grateful anew for the uncomplicated bits, when it’s not.

When I stopped paying lip service to thankfulness, and started really appreciating every speck of NICE and KIND and INNOCENT in my world, that’s when the real thankfulness began. I’m sorry I had to see the polar opposite of it to figure it out, but it turns out that’s kind of a nice reminder. Pain is ugly. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but other times, we have a choice. We can’t control every piece of our lives. But we can control how to react. The ones screaming the loudest about the unfairness of the world and how entitled they are to their misery? They’re choosing to live that way

I choose not to. I choose thankfulness for the good, and what do you know—it gives me a lot more patience for the not-so-good. It also makes me happier, and happier is always better. Life is hard, and I am thankful for it.

Happy Thanksgiving week to my American friends! Tell me the secret of your thankfulness—I’m still learning.

(More Mir at WouldaCouldaShoulda.com)

23 comments

  • Cindy

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    My thankfulness (and it’s pretty intense) is from having God’s grace showered on me, even when I least deserved it.

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  • Deirdre

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    Beautifully put. This is hitting close to home, and I will share your piece with my family, and hopefully we can choose thankfulness for the good. And today I’m thankful for the ability to laugh at myself and how the ridiculous the not-good can be.

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  • CuriousCat

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    A very good post. Hits close to home for me, also. I am thankful for many things every day and one of those things is YOU. Your writing about the good and the awful times in your life brings me out of myself, out of my own pain and that is a good thing.

    I’ve never bought into the whole “act happy and you’ll be happy” thing, but God knows, I’ve been wrong about so many things in my life, this could very well be another. So, I will try it.

    Thank you, Mir, for being you………..and for sharing! Have a wonderful (safe) Thanksgiving!

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    • Mir

      Posted on November 21, 2012

      I am actually a huge fan of the “fake it ’til you make it” mantra, but not in the “act like everything is dandy” sort of way, but in the “stop letting your emotions inform your actions, and start letting the actions you purposefully choose help inform your emotions” kind of way. It’s really hard to wrap your brain around, at first, but I find myself more and more coming back to “who do I want to be?” and then acting like THAT person instead of acting on my immediate emotions. And I think I feel better as a result.

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  • Lucinda

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    I LOVE this new tone in your writing. I think when things are really bad, sometimes it’s hard to enjoy the good because it feels wrong. It feels guilty like you’re supposed to be miserable because everything is so bad and if you aren’t miserable, then you are minimizing the bad which, well, it just isn’t true. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes something really bad to figure that out.

    A couple years ago my husband and I had a really bad summer. He had surgery, I was hospitalized, we were useless when it came to anything physical. Our kids were scared to see mom AND dad down for the count. It sucked. But we laughed and showed our kids to laugh too. To be thankful for what we did have which was an abundance of love and support from friends and family. I hope they learned a little bit of what you are writing about now. Life sucks sometimes. But it’s also pretty great. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

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    • Mir

      Posted on November 21, 2012

      You got it EXACTLY, Lucinda. I think I’ve finally come out of the long, dark tunnel of “if I’m ever happy about anything it means I’m not being a good mom while my kids struggle.” Screw that. ;)

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  • amy

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    Acceptance, letting go, realizing what is instead of what I want it to be. It’s a relief to get there and hard to stay, even harder sometimes to accept really shitty things but we learn, grow and wake up tomorrow. I’m with you, griping hurts the griper and alienates him/her all at the same time. It’s a much lonelier place.

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  • suburbancorrespondent

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    I think there is just some point where we get so beaten down that you reach a point of acceptance – not of suffering, per se, but of the existence of suffering and its ability to co-exist with happiness.

    Not saying it right, but you probably know what I mean…

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  • Rocky Mountain Woman

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    I agree with suburbancorrespondent, the first few real heartaches in your life can “eat you up” but eventually life will beat you down until you accept the fact that you can be happy through the pain…

    Have a Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie, you deserve it!

    xxoo,

    RMW

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  • The Other Leanne

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    I am one of those people who has been posting the daily thankful…and I am most thankful for the person who inspired me to it–for in paying attention to gratitude, I find myself more focused on it, more appreciative of all that is right with my world (from lights that come on at the flip of a switch to greater blessings of good friends and family who love me) and less concerned about what is not yet perfect. In being thankful for some of it, I find myself grateful for all of it.

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  • Margaret

    Posted on November 20, 2012

    However long ago when it was “popular,” I kept a Gratitude Journal. I found on the shittiest of shitty days, if I was committed to naming three things that I was thankful for, my perception really changed.

    I am not quite so structured in my approach these days, but I can safely say that in the face of the three toughest years of my life, I have managed to be aware of the bigger picture. Definitely not every minute, certainly not every hour, but at least a few moments of every day. It does not in any way remove the stuff that sucks, but it does give some perspective.

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  • Sharon

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    I was having trouble finding my thankful this year. Everyone around me is doing great, and I am thankful for that. Where’s mine? I wondered what is wrong with me. Then my daughter asked me how I knew how to be a mother, how I knew to do the right things so she could grow into the woman she is today. The universe sent me mine, and for that I am thankful. Happy Thanksgiving, Mir.

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  • Michelle

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    I like this, a lot!! I live in a place that feels like it’s been sucking all the kindness/happiness/contentment out of me (midwestern girl follows her husband to a large-ish east coast metro area). Unfortunately I can’t just pick up and leave, my husband’s job is here, my recently widowed mother in law needs us, and the schools my kids attend are top notch. Remembering to hang on to the courtesy that others (infrequently) show here will be the key to helping me stay sane and in the meantime I’m going to continue to march to my own beat and be kind to others (even if it kills me). I am so fortunate in so many ways and I marvel that on a daily basis but I think if I go out an live it more maybe I can teach my kids this lesson sooner than I learned it (at 43).

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  • Mary

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    My thankfulness is for my husband of 25 years, who called me this morning saying “I just wanted to call and tell you you’re beautiful!” Awwww…

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  • Aimee

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    I needed to read this today. There aren’t even words to say how much. I could run down the litany of all the things that have happened/are happening that would make it SO easy for me to just give in to negativity right now. I’m not going to do it, though, and you just helped me with that. So, I’m thankful for Mir, as I am so many days :) Happy Thanksgiving!

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  • Sharon

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    I heard an interview from the author of this article the other day on gratitude and it really made sense.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dan-gottlieb-phd/thanksgiving_b_2151816.html

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  • TC

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    I remember sitting in a therapist’s office during one of the worst periods of my life, telling her about how I had no choices, that there was no way out for me. And she very gently told me I was full of shit, and that I had plenty of choices…I just didn’t like any of them. And so I was choosing not to make a change, which was fine, but it was a CHOICE.

    And I swear, it was like the clouds parted and the birds started singing, and suddenly I had control of my life again, recognizing that the position I was in was mine to fix or not fix. In the end, I made a huge decision that was a choice I had sworn I couldn’t possibly consider, that I’d sworn wasn’t even a choice. But once I recognized it as an actual choice, I could choose it! (Confusing, I know, but it makes sense to me.)

    Choosing to accept or not accept or change or not change the situation you’re in, the way you respond to it, the way you perceive it…just recognizing you can CHOOSE if you want to is sometimes enough to let you be happy with where you are, or envision a better place and life. It’s so freeing. You can choose to be thankful. You can choose to be happy. Most of the time, at least. You can be in control.

    All of which is to say, I’m so glad to hear that you’re in a better place. Hugs.

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  • Carol

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    “I choose thankfulness for the good, and what do you know—it gives me a lot more patience for the not-so-good. It also makes me happier, and happier is always better. Life is hard, and I am thankful for it.”

    Words to live by! Loved this post! I am thankful I found you.

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  • Kim Smith

    Posted on November 21, 2012

    Agreed!

    Book recommendation on this very topic!
    One Thousand Gifts, Ann Voskamp.

    (If you’re a Christian, that is. Which it seems like you are, if I remember right. If you’re not, it probably won’t apply a whole heckuva lot.)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted on November 24, 2012

    This is how I got through unemployment + divorce + a whole pile of medical stuff. Once I was out of the worst of the depression, I decided I was going to take my joy where I could find it and I wasn’t going to let other people tell me I should be miserable because of my circumstances. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that, but those were the two biggest for me.

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  • Shirley @ gluten free easily

    Posted on November 24, 2012

    What a beautiful and thought-provoking post, Mir. I know a little of what a year you’ve had. I am so glad that you have found a way to keep choosing joy and being thankful. I think we all have struggles that most don’t know about. This year it’s been my mother-in-law passing away, but that’s not the actual event that’s made it harder yet more important to be thankful for all the good things that my immediate family has. I won’t get into it in detail, but those very bad made-for-tv movies where the family members change after a patriarch/matriarch’s death when an estate is being settled are very realistic. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. So we “huddle” closer, are grateful for each other every day (not sickeningly so; we’re still human!), choose to focus on the always present joy of our collie Sonny, and overall choose joy, too. It’s extremely unlikely that this year’s events will ever be recovered from, but we will be thankful for so much else that’s wonderful in our lives, like our son flying from the nest after graduating from college (to NYC no less) and getting a job after a 3-month internship (that is big in this economy!), and so much more. You really have to focus on the good and go on. The alternative is not bearable.

    Thanks again for this post!
    Shirley

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  • skubitwo

    Posted on November 24, 2012

    too true. does it mean you now go skipping down the lane like pollyanna? no, just that you make an effort to yank your head into the right place when you realize it’s going down the wrong hole.
    my niece had us for thanksgiving – whose husband is under-employed and she is running a home daycare out of their 2 bedroom apartment with 2 toddlers. we and her mom sent her money to do this because her dad who is in the hospital near her (but not the rest of us) for special weird rare cancer was allowed a day out to be with family. he had to wear a face mask and gloves and could only eat little bits, but he was with his grandkids and family. we drove 6 hours with our two sons with mental illness who were champs. the one chewed nicotine gum until he was hiccuping, but they both managed to build cheap store brand gingerbread houses with red dye #2 frosting with tiny second cousins and do multiple rounds of “jumpies” – you know, that thing you’re never supposed to do with young kids, but all uncles do it by holding hands and jumping small child into the air until they can’t breathe. now that we are back, they are exhausted and wooden, but telling us they are happy they did it. did they bathe? no, but they were there and we were there. my brother-in-law was there and alive.
    was it the hallmark thanksgiving with everyone in party dresses? no, but we were all there and that was perfect.
    so, i will seize that memory to hold onto to face the world with.
    yes, i will still get cranky at my college students who did not get their homework done 7 days after the assignment was posted, but i will be able to pull myself out of it and smile at them.
    skubitwo

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  2. Thankfulness - [...] then there was this from the ever lovely Mir.  And if she can be thankful, then so can I.  …
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