Radical Gratefulness

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.’


Portrait of Saint Dominic (Meister Eckhart), 1515. Fine Art Images / Getty Images

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
― Meister Eckhart

Walk into any newsagent and you are likely to find a ‘Gratefulness Journal’, to record what you are grateful for each day. This might be feeling thankful for the important relationships in your life or the small, often overlooked, details such as noticing a bee land on a flower. It is a centering practice to help us focus on the beauty of life rather than fixate on our tribulations.

While it may look as if this is a fad which has come to us from the positive psychology movement, there is a far longer and much deeper history to consider. Gratefulness has been a religious practice for eons and not just in the Christian faith. It is present in Buddhism, in Judaism and Islam.

While it is easy to be grateful for the wonderful things we come across in life, it requires a much deeper practice to be grateful for our trials. When tragedy strikes or when things simply don’t go our way, it is difficult to see what to be grateful for. How can you be grateful for the death of a loved one or bushfires burning out of control? These are questions which have plagued humanity from time immemorial.

This is where I turn to people like Viktor Frankl and Etty Hillesum who have gone through the most horrific ordeals and could still be thankful for the small joys in their life. Viktor Frankl survived Hitler’s concentration camps, but Etty Hillesum didn’t.

My lived experience has been so much easier than theirs, but I too have had my share of grief and sorrow, as no doubt you have too. I look to Viktor and Etty and to people such as Brother David Steindl-Rast for spiritual guidance. I admire their resilience and depth of practice in difficult times. If Etty could be grateful for the beauty of life whilst in a concentration camp, I can be grateful for the small irritations that assail me daily.

This morning, late for work, I found I had a flat tyre. My first instinct was to curse and be annoyed. I drove to the local mechanic who kindly pumped it up so I could get to the next town where there was a tyre shop. Once there, I couldn’t be helped until much later in the day but I had to get to work. I took my chances and drove the 100km on what I thought was a dodgy tyre. I then left my car at a tyre shop expecting to get a whopping bill that I couldn’t afford. Instead, I was told that the problem was simply a valve, and it had been fixed when it was inflated by the mechanic. No charge.

Looking back, was I feeling stressed this morning? Of course I was! Did I get to work late? Yes! Was I grateful for all the people who helped me? Absolutely! I wanted nothing more but to say a heartfelt thank you to my colleague who was willing to cover for me, to the mechanic in my village who pumped up the tyre, to the salespeople in Cowra who wouldn’t charge me for their inspection. From what I perceived to be a miserable start to my day, I can only look back with gratitude to friends and strangers who have helped me along the way.

I strive to be thankful for each day and for whatever it may bring. I am grateful for my existence, that chance event that has bought me into this world. I know my life is but a brief flicker in the expanse of time and I am ever so grateful to have been given the opportunity to shine for that briefest moment that is mine.




10 worthy New Year’s resolutions

  1. Be grateful. ‘The root of joy is gratefulness… It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.’ – Brother David Steindl-Rast, my inspiration (gratitude.org).
  2. Say ‘thank you’ for everything; the good and the bad. As Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) said, ‘If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.’
  3. Be generous. ‘Sometimes when we are generous in small, barely detectable ways it can change someone else’s life forever.’- Margaret Cho, comedian.
  4. Stand up to injustice.  Martin Luther King Jr., amongst others said, ‘No one is free until we are all free.’ This quote makes us realise that we are all diminished by injustice, not just the person or people who experience it firsthand.
  5. Be aware of the deep interconnections we share. Our lives are linked at every level, from the air we breathe to the planet we inhabit as well as the way we treat each other. Olympian Hannah Teter expressed this clearly when she said, ‘The earth is one big, interconnected entity. If you hurt a piece, you hurt the whole. If you hurt the people, you hurt the environment.’
  6. Be aware of your biases; we all have them!  I quote Tara Moss, ‘We must all acknowledge our unconscious biases, and listen with less bias when women, and others who are marginalised, speak out. A lot of change is possible by just acknowledging unconscious bias – that exhaustively documented but unpleasant reality many would rather ignore – and listening with less bias and acting on what we then learn.’ Or as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.’
  7. Notice beauty. Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor who went on to become a well-respected neurologist and psychiatrist said: ‘As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before.’ If people can find beauty while in the worst possible surroundings, so can we. Maya Angelou put it brilliantly, ‘Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.’
  8. Make time for art and play. Albert Einstein famously said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ Give it the space to bloom.
  9. Slow down. Kirsten Gillibrand (Democratic Senator) had this to say about rushing: ‘The biggest mistakes I’ve ever made are when I’ve been rushed. If I’m overwhelmed, I slow down. It’s more effective.’ It reminds me how Gandhi on a very busy day exclaimed, ‘I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.’ We would all benefit from slowing down.
  10. Find the humour amongst it all – it will stand you in good stead. The last word goes to the inimitable Joan Rivers. ‘Never be afraid to laugh at yourself; after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.’ 
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