I’ve been hearing a lot about gratitude these days. Normal, right? Thanksgiving inspires us and we’re posting, tweeting, blogging, talking about the things we’re grateful for. I love it. Gratitude brings warmth to our lives, and in its glow, everything feels good. We feel hopeful, nourished, sustained. Really great stuff, and the world I want to live in. But something’s missing.
I’m hearing ample gratitude for the “good” in our lives — our loved ones, our livelihood, the kindness of strangers, our plentiful planet. What I’m not hearing is gratitude for our adversity.
Last week, I was the guest speaker at the Goddess Temple of Orange County. In anticipation of Thanksgiving, the theme was gratitude and blessings. I chose to talk about unlikely blessings, those events and experiences that challenge us, sometimes to the core, and yet also change us and our lives so much for the better.
My colleagues and clients in the coaching world know a great deal about these kinds of events. Many of us heart-centered, social ‘preneurs were driven to the work we do by challenging experiences in our lives. We emerged from those long, dark nights with purpose and expertise, and now we fulfill our mission by lighting the way for others. And yet, even in the coaching world, where it seems everyone is talking about the power of gratitude, I’m not hearing much gratitude for the struggles that brought us to where we are.
Before we go on, let me be clear about something — paralysis sucks. The daily incontinence, the brittle and breaking bones, the amount of time and energy it takes to get dressed or get in and out of the car. You can be sure when my son pulls at my shirt and says, “Mama, up!” gratitude is the last thing on my mind. And yet, when I look at the greatest blessings of my life, the gems that live at the very heart of me, they ALL arrived through the doorway of paralysis.
Paralysis brought out the best in Dean, and slowed me down enough to notice that best, to notice what I assure you I had been doubting. There is no question in my mind that, were it not for that, I would have left him. Maybe not immediately, that month or the next, but eventually, certainly within a year. And what a loss it would have been. But thanks to my accident, Dean and I found each other in a whole new way and, ten blissful years later, I’m profoundly grateful for that.
That would be enough, easily, but being with Dean brought our beloved Aidan, who overwhelms me with joy dozens of times a day. And let’s not forget Reba, who is part of this family in huge part because Dean wanted a dog, and who, by definition, could not be mine were I able-bodied. Without the events of Oct. 4, 2002, this family wouldn’t exist, simple as that. And there is not a day that goes by that I am not grateful, over and over again, for the magnificence that is my family.
My work, too. Before my accident, I was sort of floating, making a meager living working for a non-profit and creating theater with talented friends. Within months of hitting the ground, though, I’d embarked on a mission. The events surrounding my fall were so extraordinary they gave me not only something really important to say, but a drive powerful enough to push past the fear and resistance. Ten years later, I’ve been extremely privileged to share those stories with thousands of people around the world. And I have been beyond blessed to be so frequently on the receiving end of others’ gratitude, expressing how profoundly my stories have changed their lives.
Falling taught me the most remarkable lessons, and somehow it fine tuned my existing skills so that I could share those lessons, and teach others how to share their lessons, in life-changing ways. Who I am professionally, and the extreme joy I get from that work, is so far beyond anything I’d ever experienced before the fall, I can hardly describe it (which is saying a lot for me!). How can I not be grateful for the catalyst of that transformation?
And that’s really what it comes down to. In my case, tragedy was a catalyst for extraordinary transformation.
I had a Chinese medical doctor in the early months of my injury who told me that paralysis was going to make me a better person. All I could think of when he said it was, you know, I’m already a pretty good person — do I really need this? But he was so right. It wasn’t about moving from bad into good, it was about moving from good into golden.
Paralysis has definitely brought out the best in me. It’s made me kinder, more compassionate, more generous. Goddess knows it’s made me more patient. It’s brought out my resilience, and shown me courage I did not know I had. It’s made me more still, yes, in very painful ways, but also in the best possible way. I am so much more able to receive, to allow good things and good life to flow into me. And maybe most importantly, it’s given me voice, and I am serving others with that voice. For all the pain and heartache and frustration, paralysis has brought out my brilliance, and I am shinier than I ever imagined I could be.
Yesterday, while sitting together on the couch in a post-feast stupor, Dean told me that our friend Erica’s house had burned to the ground.
I met Erica a couple of years ago when we were both fellows at the Vermont Studio Center, I for writing, she for art. The Vermont Studio Center is the largest international artists’ and writers’ Residency Program in the United States, and we bonded over the shared experience of navigating rural Vermont with mobility impairments. She made a practice of launching her body in the direction she wanted to go and then hoping for the best. I enjoyed both her artistic sensibility and her intrepid spirit.
When Dean gave me the news about Erica’s house, the first thing I said was, “Oh no. That’s terrible.” And it is terrible, just like falling out of a tree and becoming instantly paralyzed is terrible. The losses are real and dear. These kinds of events are true tragedies. But they can also be extraordinary blessings. Erica’s house burning down might just turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to her, in the same way that paralysis turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me.
And so I’m giving myself this challenge: While I’m holding the pain of Erica’s loss, while I’m empathizing with the shock and grief she must be feeling, maybe I can also hold something else. Maybe I can hold the possibility of blessing, of opportunity and transformation far more wonderful than we can imagine at this moment. Maybe I can plant a seed of gratitude that in a few months or years, might grow into a beautiful tree, shading us from the scorching heat of this loss. And we will be thankful for it all.
So now, my friends, I’m extending the challenge to you. Is there some loss or heartache you can give a little needed hug? While we’re still in the mood for gratitude, before massive consumerism and lethal sugar consumption addle our brains, can we look into the painful places and acknowledge the lessons we learned, the changes we made, the relationships we formed, the purpose we found… and give thanks? Can we feel genuine gratitude not in spite of our hardship, but in fact for our hardship? Because it’s not just about the wonderful things we found on the other side of an ugly door. It’s also about the door.
Happy Thanksgiving, to one and all.