The Art of Gratitude

Written by on March 10, 2012 in Learning to Breathe - 9 Comments

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” — Epictetus

Recently, when I had a break of time when my kids were away for half term with their father, I was racking my brain for what to do with that week. It had been quite a while since I’d allowed myself a holiday abroad, stuck in the wait for the divorce papers and the divorce money to come through. It had especially been a very, very long while since I’d taken a holiday on my own: sans kids, sans parents, and sans partner. And here I was, newly single, with a kid-free week ahead of me, no work project to keep me grounded, and no partner to take along with me. So I decided to visit a friend somewhere in Europe. I had many friends in Europe actually, most of whom I had only maintained some slight semblance of touch with, though would still be openly invited to visit. But most were actually in the more distant areas of Europe like Spain and Italy: close enough for a short flight to get me there, but still with the necessity of a flight. I have flown so much in my life already that I felt no need to fly again when I only really had a few days to kill before the return of my kids.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” — Thornton Wilder

It was a friend who actually helped me along in this decision. In a casual conversation, he mentioned that the Eurostar was having a Valentine’s Day sale that would be over very soon, but that made tickets to either Paris or Brussels really cheap. That was when I remembered that there was a good friend I hadn’t seen in a long time that was now living in Brussels.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” — Albert Einstein

It had been six years since I’d seen my friend Rava. We’d met years ago when we were both in our early twenties during both our time of exploration and traveling. Rava had taken some time off work to see the world outside her home country, and I had just signed a contract with a new job and had negotiated a couple months of freedom before my start date. I think that was the last trip I took alone. Rava was alone too. We ended up sharing a room in a youth hostel in some Middle Eastern country and bonded instantly, so much so that we decided to travel together for a few more weeks before going our separate ways to other countries on our tour. In that time of meeting, we spoke so openly and candidly with one another that it was as if we’d known each other for years. Both young and searching for something, we spoke of love and men and life and spirituality, and the meaning of all of it. When we finally did part, I remember missing her company, and the time after passing quietly and without momentum as I waited to return back to resume my “real life”.

 “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” — William Arthur Ward

Over time, Rava and I tried to keep in touch, but only barely, as this was not either of our strengths. Still, she came into my memory when I took a trip to her country many years back and visited her, at a time when both of us were in serious relationships (me with my future husband and her with a man who would go on to break her heart). Though that visit was short, it was once again filled with talk about love and life and spirituality, and, of course, of the meaning of it all. Both of us were trying to decide what to do with our leading men at the time. I wondered if I should marry mine and if he was really a good match for me, and she wondered how to make hers see what a good match they really were for each other. Years later, she visited me when I was living in London for the first time shortly before I left. This time I was married and pregnant with my first daughter and she had just split with yet another man who had come close to breaking her heart.

“Take full account of the excellencies which you possess, and in gratitude remember how you would hanker after them, if you had them not.” — Marcus Aurelius

At that time, my husband and I were actually in a good point in our marriage. I was almost six months pregnant with our first child and we were enjoying that time of great bonding and excitement together. Still, I felt something was missing or wrong or somehow inadequate. Even in that good time between us, I was already somewhat dissatisfied. Perhaps, he too was already a bit dissatisfied with me as well. Our happiness together was still intact back then, but we were already under threat of dying and we didn’t even recognize it yet.

“Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, worn or consumed. Happiness is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude.” — Denis Waitley

I remember even then asking my friend if she thought we were a good match. She thought I was very lucky. I had a husband who was successful at work, I had a job that allowed me to work from home in the last months of my pregnancy, we lived in a beautiful flat in a nice area of London, and I was expecting my first child to an excited father when she would have given quite a lot to have the husband, the father, and the child all wrapped up like I did. Still, there was something, she admitted, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on that was somehow askew, somehow not completely right. Could it have been that thing that had brought my husband and I together in the first place: our common love of the “good life” and our looking ahead in the common desire for “something more”. Maybe it was that constant search for something better than what we had that was the ultimate cause of our rift. Despite all our other problems, maybe it was that inability to be grateful for each other that finally caused our demise.

“Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — because we will always want to have something else or something more.” — Brother David Steindl-Rast

Fast forward six years and here we are now, in a totally different place, in a totally different time, almost a parallel universe of time where things look completely different, completely opposite of what they did back then. Now it is me who is alone, just having finished with one serious relationship after another. And it is my friend who is “lucky” so to speak. She is married for almost five years now to a loving husband, an involved father, and a good provider. Like my marriage, hers is one of mixed cultures where the two somehow, against all odds, found each other in the midst of their different worlds and backgrounds, even different languages. Like me, she has two adorable little children and is now living in a lovely large flat in Brussels also as an ex-pat.

“If the only prayer you say in your life is thank you, that would suffice.” — Meister Eckhart

There is a big difference here, however, and that is in Rava’s attitude as compared to mine. Looking at her life, at her husband, and at her kids, I see a union of two souls. The husband isn’t perfect. He isn’t even my type. I would never have chosen such a man for myself. Yet my friend is supremely happy and says that she feels “every day and with the passing years together more and more lucky.” And I think he feels just as lucky to have her. At this same point of time in my marriage, I was already contemplating divorce, something we moved into soon after. My friend, however, is only looking forward to the coming of time with her husband.

 “Grace isn’t a little prayer you chant before receiving a meal. It’s a way to live. ” — Attributed to Jacqueline Winspear

My friend’s children aren’t easy either. They cry and they whine just as mine did at that age. They are smaller than mine, one being under three and the other still under a year. I remember how difficult it was back then and I find myself telling her that it will get easier as they get older. Now mine can independently play on their own. They can tell me what they want instead of just crying and whining. They can understand when I tell them we need to hurry to get somewhere and the reasons why they should or should not do something. They are still little, but they are also big enough to figure out the world and the rules that come with it. They can dress themselves and no longer need diapers (or nappies). They use the toilet and all that potty training is well behind us. They can walk and no longer need a stroller (or buggy) to transport them. It’s easy to take the bus or train with them and they are well-seasoned travelers quite accustomed to airports and airplanes. Being around my friend and two really small children again makes me suddenly appreciate what I have and how lucky I am.

 “What if you gave someone a gift, and they neglected to thank you for it-would you be likely to give them another? Life is thesame way. In order to attract more of the blessings that life has to offer, you must truly appreciate what you already have.” — Ralph Marston

But being with my friend does more than just makes me happy with what I have, it also makes me realize again just how wonderful marriage can be when two people are aligned to one another and as happy with each other as my friend and her husband. Despite the occasional difficulty of their children – their little one was teething and their older one had trouble sleeping – they have a united way of working together that my husband and I never were able to accomplish. My husband always spoke of us “working as a team” as something we should try to do. My friend and her husband don’t need to talk about it; they just naturally do it. They are a team without having to force it or fake it or aim towards it. They just are. It is apparent in the way they answer their children in unison when together, or in the way they finish each other’s sentences. It is clear in the way they look at each other with a natural, real love and gratitude for their togetherness. It is the way they work together so perfectly, so much without trying even.

 “But the value of gratitude does not consist solely in getting you more blessings in the future. Without gratitude you cannot long keep from dissatisfied thought regarding things as they are.” — Wallace Wattles

I remember exactly the moment when my older daughter, being as clever as she was, realized just how easily she could use my and her father’s so different ways of raising our children to her advantage. She wasn’t trying to be manipulative of course; she was barely three. But she wanted to eat cereal when she should have waited for dinner, and she knew exactly which parent would give in to her when asked. I watch Rava’s daughter trying the same trick, but to no avail. “Mommy said no,” Rava’s husband says when he is asked, in a show of unity my ex-husband never gave me. “If mommy say’s no, then it’s no”. 

“Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life actually attracts more of the things that you appreciate and value into your life.” — Christiane Northrup

I pay a lot of attention to my friend’s marriage in those days spent with her family, not out of any jealousy or desire for the same, but out of an interest and fascination really. I grew up with two parents who are still, after more than thirty years, very happily married. They have their ups and downs of course, like all couples (and sometimes the downs are significant and dangerous), but they always manage to somehow find a solution to their issues. And I realize, through watching my friend’s marriage, a common similarity: a general unison of thought and action, and an understanding of the need for each other, coupled with a gratitude for each other and for the ability to spend life together. I remember seeing that with my parents, how they too were so united in their ways of raising us and of running the family. Though, with my parents being from a different generation, the roles in the home were more pronounced, where my friend’s marriage is more equal, there is quite a lot in common. I watch them work together in fascination. It has been a long time since I’ve witnessed so closely such unison in a couple.

“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes of which all men have some.” — Charles Dickens

Thinking about it, I realize that my sister and her husband, who also are very happily married, also share the same unity and gratitude. In fact, it is my sister – who shares a common spirituality and higher way of looking at life with her husband, rooted more in “the bigger picture for the world” than in a desire for self material gain or masses of possessions – who once told me that I would be much happier with my life if I could be grateful for all of the wonderful blessings that I have already been given. And, if I look closely, I can think of another few friends who also have this same “luck” of being truly happily married.

“Many people who order their lives rightly in all other ways are kept in poverty by their lack of gratitude.” — Wallace Wattles

In my time of separation from my husband, and eventually divorce, I had come to see marriage as something that inevitably could not work. I thought about our struggles and how difficult it was to co-exist with another on a regular basis; I thought about the difficulty of fidelity that so many couples struggle with because of their lack of unison in the family as well as in the bedroom; and I thought about how complicated it is to give up one’s independence and to put another ahead of oneself. All of these were factors in our own demise, among others. Where once I had been a big proponent of marriage, I had come to see marriage as fundamentally flawed. But now, with the inside view, once again, of yet another marriage (with kids) that seemed to work so nicely, and where both members preferred to coexist together rather than apart, I felt the hope of new possibilities brewing…

  “If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.” — Rabbi Harold Kushner

My friend gave, without being asked to give. She found as much pleasure in the giving as in the receiving. She loved just because she loved. She cared because it was easier to care than not to care. She tried always, and naturally succeeded, to be a good partner and a good mother. She felt gratitude everyday for the wonderful fate that brought her to meet her husband and the children they created and reared together. And although they didn’t always have an easy ride (in particular with occasional economical hiccups), they always worked as a true partnership to improve things. My friend and her husband looked at life with excitement and happiness to venture forward into it together. And they were, indeed, a truly blessed and well-matched couple.

 “Blessed are those that can give without remembering and receive without forgetting.” — Author Unknown

It is with this knowledge and this lesson that I returned last month from Brussels back to London. And with this newfound hope I venture forward, remembering to give thanks for the small blessings and the little bits of light and happiness that we are able to see (if not notice) every day.

“You simply will not be the same person two months from now after consciously giving thanks each day for the abundance that exists in your life. And you will have set in motion an ancient spiritual law: the more you have and are grateful for, the more will be given you.” — Sarah Ban Breathnach

So let me be grateful for the ability to catch up with a friend I haven’t seen for so long, and who in so little time made me realize and understand so much. Let me say thank you for the newfound hope that relationships, if treated rightly, can actually work after all, and that the best antidote is just a bit of gratitude. Thank you, universe, for my two wonderful children and for all the lessons I’ve learned through the pain that caused them. Thank you, God, for this opportunity for another shot at happiness. And thank you, time, that I still have enough of it left to make a difference while a difference can still be made.

And, so, let me finish this particular blog with the wise, ageless, simple advice of the Buddah:

“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” — Buddha

 

(A big thank you to this site from Marelisa Fábregafor the wonderful quotes about gratitude: http://abundance-blog.marelisa-online.com/2009/08/11/49-gratitude-quotes-and-a-poem-of-thankfulness/)

“Gratitude should not be just a reaction to getting what you want, but an all-the-time gratitude, the kind where you notice the little things and where you constantly look for the good, even inunpleasant situations. Start bringing gratitude to your experiences, instead of waiting for a positive experience in order to feel grateful.” — Marelisa Fábrega

 

If you enjoyed this blog about Gratitude, please look out for my eBook with the same title coming soon to both Kindle and this website (to be available for free download for a limited time).

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