An “attitude of gratitude” was the goal (and the task) set for me (and others) by Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, She-Whose-Voice-Rides-the-Wind, the grandmother who adopted me into the Wolf Clan of the Seneca Nation. Like most people, I find it fairly easy to be grateful for pleasant, peaceful experiences. The difficulty comes in being grateful for the things that annoy me, exasperate me, upset me, offend me, aggravate me, hurt me, and injure me.
Victims cannot be grateful. When I open myself to gratitude for the difficulties in my life, I take control of my life. When I indulge in blame, shame, and guilt, I have a false sense of control. Blame, shame, and guilt imply that I can figure out what I did “wrong,” correct it, and thus escape further pain. When I am hurt again (and I will, inevitably, be hurt again), I heap further blame, shame, and guilt on myself. And the cycle repeats.
Gratitude helps me remember that I am not in control, no one is in control; life is chaos. Gratitude breaks through my habitual stories of woe and grief. Gratitude changes the note and awakens me to the joy that is possible, even in the midst of distress.
Being grateful is a practice. And, as with any practice, it helps to practice. Start small: the next time you injure yourself, practice gratitude. Be grateful that you can feel pain. (Those who cannot, do serious damage to themselves.) Be grateful if you have access to pure water to wash your injury. (Most people don’t.) Be grateful to the healing plants that grow all around you for offering themselves to help you heal. (I am grateful for plantain; I am grateful for yarrow; I am grateful for comfrey.)
Expand your practice of gratitude to your feelings, too. The next time your feelings are hurt, be grateful. Be grateful that you are intelligent and aware enough to have your feelings hurt. Be grateful that you have feelings. Remind yourself that the pendulum swings lawfully. If you block it on the “ouch” side of its swing, it won’t be able to give you a real “wow” on the other side of its swing. When we open to gratitude, we can’t wallow in self-pity. Gratitude allows us to experience pain while warning us away from suffering.
After practicing on small hurts, begin to embrace the larger ones. Gratitude allows anger to flow out while blocking its ability to turn in and turn into self-hatred and self-abuse.
Is it even possible to be grateful for injuries? For incest? Rape? Abuse? Abandonment? Murder? Yes, grateful. As well as outraged. Yes. And hurt. Yes. And frightened. Yes. We are outraged by violence; to be healthy, we need to acknowledge and safely express that anger. Yes. We are hurt by violence; to be open to life, we need to embrace the world’s pain (and our own) and have time for tears. Yes. We are terrified of violence; to feel strong and safe, in our center and aware in all our senses, we need to have safe spaces where we can let the fear show. Yes. And, ultimately, if we are to get on with our lives in a healthy, open, strong way, then we will find a way to be grateful for violence.
Being grateful for the “negative” side of life was the gift I chose when my life/business/spiritual partners walked out on me. I remarked at one point that I just barely had my head above the level of the do-do. It wasn’t until my whole head was under that I surrendered to gratitude. What else could I do?
I know, I could have chosen revenge, bitterness, depression, and despair. I could have blamed myself, shamed myself, and guilt tripped myself. Fortunately, my mentors – especially Elisabeth Kubler Ross and Jean Houston – have steered me firmly away from those shoals. No blame, no shame, no guilt. “Life is a tumbler and you are a rock,” Elisabeth used to say to us, “and you will either be polished or turned into rubble.”
There have been times when I felt shattered, broken, torn up, and well on the way to being nothing more than a pile of smoking rubble. Gratitude is the glue that has kept me together – and brought out my polish and shine, my glimmer and gleam. Gratitude keeps peace in my heart and a smile on my face, even when things are going less than well.
“I bless my enemies, for they make me strong and wise,” was my mantra of gratitude during the four years that my partners stole from me, lied about me, slandered me, and refused to abide by judges’ decisions time and again. I have no control over others, their thoughts, their words, or their actions. The only person I can ever hope to influence is myself. I can choose to open to gratitude, or I can contract around my pain and use it as an excuse to withdraw part of myself from life.
The Wise Woman Tradition tells us that the Universe prefers “both/and” to “either/or.” Gratitude is the both/and of painful experiences. It does not change the experience. It does not take away the pain. Gratitude is spacious; pain is constricting. Left to its own ways, my body/mind can obsess about unpleasant experiences, magnify pain, freeze me with anxiety, and generally shut me down. Gratitude interrupts the seemingly endless repetition of the pain.
Gratitude is a living treasure. It is always available as a choice, even when life (and others) have done you wrong. So, like Grandmother Twylah, I urge you to live with an “attitude of gratitude.”
© 2010. Susun Weed