Gratitude has become trendy with the positive psychology movement. You can always find something to be grateful for – be grateful for your breath, a pretty flower, a kind word. While I agree with the sentiment, I wonder whether the next generation who hear this mantra will grow up like I did, having to eat everything on my plate because I had to think of all those starving children in India. I am quite sure none of my Indian friends ever benefitted from the extra mouthful of cauliflower or cabbage I forced down my throat and it created a very skewed relationship with food for me which has lasted a lifetime. Waste not, want not…
Don’t get me wrong, gratefulness is a beautiful state and I do believe that we need embody it much more than we do. My gripe is the glib statements that often sound forced and obvious. What I have been grappling with is what we do when things go wrong in our lives. How to be grateful when truly terrible things happen. This is what mean by radical gratefulness.
When I watched Peter die, struggling to take his last breaths, in those moments, I felt grateful. Not for the intense sunny morning that seemed so incongruous with what was happening, nor for the 20 or so years I had spent with him, but for those awful moments where I watched him suffer and that I could be there to share them with him. As my dear friend Janet said at her husband’s funeral, ‘Today is a beautiful, terrible day.’
Ten years later, I sat with Roger as he took his last breath and once more, I was grateful to have had the honour to sit with him in that beautiful, terrible moment. To bear witness to someone’s final moments is to be filled with deep sorrow, pain and beatitude. Radical gratefulness is the only way I can describe this. It is the experience of two opposing feelings in visceral communion through grace.
And so it was this week when I experienced a major setback. It was my fault – I missed a crucial date, and it has cost me dearly. My first reaction was to be annoyed, frustrated, and to be honest, gutted. But as time went on, I was able to find my way back to radical gratefulness. I didn’t accept the ‘it happened for a reason,’ ‘something better will come your way,’ comments, although I truly appreciated the love and empathy I received. No, I forced myself to look at the situation deeply, accept it fully, and be grateful for the lesson I have learned about my chronic inattention to detail. It simply matters, and I’ve stopped making excuses about being ‘the big picture thinker’.
I can now say with conviction that I am grateful for the mistakes I’ve made, for they have enabled me to learn and grow. As Alex Elle explains eloquently, ‘Gratitude practice isn’t about pacifying our painful or challenging times —i t’s about recognizing them and finding self-compassion as we do the work.’