This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.
In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.
It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.
Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.
But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.
Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.
I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.
Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?
It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.
We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.
If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.
Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.
We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.
Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.
Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.
Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.
In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.
We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.
Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.
Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.
So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.
Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.
In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.
In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.
This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!
The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.
Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.
It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.
Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.
Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:
Differentiating between truth and lies
Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
Realizing the difference between useless and useful
Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
Understanding where our power is and where it is not
Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy
Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.“
In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.
I ran into a great question a few weeks ago: “What gives you courage?” I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Courage, the ability to do something frightening or having strength in spite of pain or grief, is not the absence of fear. If we have no fear we have no need of courage.
Fear, in my experience, is multifaceted. My most private fears are about my own wholeness and worth. Then, there’s the fear of external forces, like a coward with a gun in the supermarket; the judgement or criticism of a loved one; or a personal loss, injury or illness.
Yet another kind of fear is one I suspect many of us feel right now, a sort of ill-defined psychic shadow, a general feeling of insecurity about the state of our world and the future. I try not to give it too much attention, but it’s always there, like a thin cloud between me and the sun. I know the only place I have power is right here, right now, in this moment, and I’m glad I’m typing at the keyboard rather than staring out the window and wondering what tragedy or catastrophe will be brought to my attention next and where it will all end.
Is that a kind of courage, staying intentional in the moment and managing our own power?
So, what keeps us going in times like these, in spite of our fear?
Oddly, the first thing I thought of was a poem I read as a teenager. All these years I’ve kept it and thought about the wagon wheel that did not break, the faithful dog, the innocent child. I’ve long forgotten where I came across it and I don’t know who wrote it.
Journal Note Long Ago
Crossing the wilderness or the sea I take with me nobody who is afraid nor do I want with me the memory of a man or woman who is afraid.
I am afraid enough myself now—there are shadows and ghosts enough now—in the meshes of my corpuscles—and so I must not ask others to go.
I keep the memory of a dog who was never afraid, a wagon whose wheels lasted, a child who had not lived long enough to know the meaning of the words Yesterday and Tomorrow.
The second thing that comes to mind about the source of my own courage also seems peculiar, but on second thought it might be a way of talking about faith. If and when I am able to identify The Right Thing To Do in any circumstance, fear ceases to have any power over me. I certainly feel it, and sometimes it seems I’ll be ground into oblivion by it, but as long as I’ve breath and a pulse I will do what I believe is right, come what may.
This is a trait fanatics and zealots of every stripe share with me, a fact which makes me pause and shudder. There is a difference, though, between a suicide bomber or the aforesaid coward with a gun and me. I don’t pretend to know what’s right for others, only myself. I’m not interested in having power over other people, forcing my ideology on those around me or taking out my frustrations on others.
My sense of The Right Thing To Do always involves my integrity and intuition, and is not weakened by the judgements and criticisms of those around me. My integrity and intuition are my own. Only I can maintain them. Without them, I am nothing.
When people talk about faith, I generally think of religion, which can be a staunch support for courage as well as a powerful motivator. However, most religions I’m familiar with require submission to a so-called higher authority, either human and/or sacred text (the author of which is frequently unclear and the original of which was written in a language and context I’m unfamiliar with). Many good people build their lives on a bedrock of religious faith and are sustained by it. That is not my way. I will not sacrifice my personal power to an external authority.
Information and learning give me courage. Literacy and curiosity are gateways to understanding, compassion and revelation. The beauty and complexity of our world and our universe, the remarkable experience of being human, the persistence of life, the perspective of history, the indomitable creativity of the human spirit — all these inspire me and give me courage.
My study and practice of minimalism has given me courage. The more objects and distractions I peel away from my space, time and energy, the stronger and more peaceful I become. Serenity, it turns out, has everything to do with living with less stuff, needing less money and concentrating on the undistracted and undiluted abundance of each moment. I don’t need nearly as much as I thought I did. Peace, joy, clarity and courage immediately flower in the space freed from stuff. I have what I need. I am what I need.
And that brings me to the last big ingredient in my particular recipe for courage. Learning to know, love and trust myself has given me courage. Part of this has to do with the gifts of aging. I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, made a lot of mistakes and collected a lot of scars. Every day I learn a little more and heal a little more. I have allowed my experience in life to expand my compassion, empathy, intuition, wisdom and ability to love. I’m a resilient, adaptable survivor, and I know, no matter what happens, I’ll do my best to my last breath.
A poem. The Right Thing To Do. Information and learning. Minimalism. Self-regard. Mix well.
The pool where I work is part of a rehabilitation center, which is part of a local hospital. There are actually two pools. One is a lap pool of about 84 degrees. The other is a large therapy pool, nearly as big as the 4-lane lap pool. The therapy pool is about 94 degrees. The pool patrons are a mix of the public, hospital staff and rehab patients.
As a lifeguard, I spend hours in an elevated chair watching people in the water and moving around on the deck. It delights me to be paid for doing what I naturally do in the world, which is to people watch. In an environment with a consistent air temperature over 80 degrees with more than 50% humidity, all of us — staff, patrons and patients — are necessarily without our usual armor of clothing, make-up and jewelry. We are physically revealed to one another to an unusual degree in a public place.
I’m struck every day by the humility of flesh, the wonder and complexity of our physical being; the almost painful innocence of small children with their rounded, unselfconscious forms; the incredible and paradoxical endurance, resilience and fragility of the human body, and the inexorable truths our unconcealed bodies reveal.
I’m touched by the everyday, patient, humble courage of people whose bodies are ill, injured and aging. I watch people participate in classes: Water walking, water aerobics, arthritis and fibromyalgia in the therapy pool, and swim lessons. I watch couples and families, caregivers and their charges, school groups and special needs groups. People come to lose weight, to rehabilitate after a stroke or cardiac event, to increase their strength and endurance, to recover from surgery or injury. People also come to socialize, to play, and to be inspired and motivated by staff, classes, music and one another.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
Some folks swim laps. Others water walk and go through exercise routines with buoys, kickboards and weights. They come out of the locker rooms with walkers, canes and wheelchairs. Some need help getting in and out of the pool, or even down to the pool from the parking lot.
For the most part, people who make use of the facility are patient, pleasant and good-natured. Watching them, I wonder at their resilience. What must it be like to be so bent one can only see the floor? How does one cope when the only ambulation possible is to creep along with a walker? The joy and laughter of a wheel-chair bound young person with contorted and twisted limbs like sticks when she’s carried into the therapy pool make me weep.
There’s really no place to hide in the world, at least from ourselves. We all live in a body, and many of us struggle with loving them, including me. We spend an amazing amount of time, money, anguish and effort in disguising our perceived physical defects from the eyes of the world. We tell ourselves nobody can see our shame. No one can see how unlovely or imperfect we really are. No one will ever know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
But we know, and our shame and self-loathing poison our lives.
I wonder, as I sit in the chair, what is it about the people who use the pool that enables them to risk physical authenticity? Do they love and accept themselves as they are? If so, how have they developed that ability? Are they unconcerned with what others think of them? Are they like me, and simply resigned to their physical reality, feeling the benefits of using the pool are more important than hiding their appearance, but privately ashamed and embarrassed?
In thinking about this, I realize my own relationship with my body is complicated. On the one hand, I feel affection, loyalty and gratitude. I’ve never aspired to beauty, whatever beauty is. On the other hand, I cringe every time I see a picture of myself, which is not often, as I hate having my picture taken and avoid it whenever possible. I think I cringe because I wish I could protect that vulnerable woman from the eyes and criticism of others. I cringe because my deepest and most private shame is that my physical envelope contains some hidden foulness that makes me unworthy of physical affection and contact. I’m not talking about sex. Sexual attraction and desire are a whole different conversation. I’ve been good enough for sex, but not good enough for consistent loving, nurturing touch. Not good enough to hold.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
In fact, one of the biggest reasons why I love the water so much is that it touches me.
The shame I feel around this is corrosive and chronic. It’s my intention that it also remain entirely invisible to any onlooker. The pain of this hidden vulnerability of mine enlarges the way I observe others in their bodies. It seems to me we must all have some degree of skin hunger that’s more or less satisfied, depending on our situation. We must all feel some degree of physical isolation and alienation at some point in our lives. Surely every body I see is worthy of care, of love, of touch and nurture, in spite of skin tags, scars, cellulite, bulges and sags, hair distribution or absence, aging, injury and disability, too many or too few pounds.
As I sit on the lifeguard stand, counting heads and scanning the pools, I keep coming back to courage. Courage and humility. The willingness to be seen without the comfort and concealment of clothing. The willingness to be physically authentic and vulnerable. Not a story of courage that will ever be made into a movie, but a kind of daily, humble heroism that touches and inspires me.
Samuel Zeller on Unsplash
As an observer, it’s effortful to discard childish judgements like “ugly” and “beautiful.” It’s hard not to apply an internalized rating system. I’m tainted by Hollywood, by digitally altered images and by my own private romantic fantasies. Somewhere underneath all the limitations imposed by that conditioning and brainwashing, I glimpse a vast compassionate wisdom encompassing all of us. Life, after all, is beautiful and miraculous. Doing what we can to care for and accept the body we have is an act of courage and strength. Allowing ourselves to be seen and vulnerable takes humility and heroism.
I wonder, somewhat uneasily, if we are no longer able to grasp the beauty inherent in our physical forms. We seem determined to approach the planet’s body, our own and the bodies of others as commodities and resources to plunder, manipulate and then discard when they become boring, worn-out, ill or (at least to our eyes) ugly. Perhaps we’ve lost the ability to appreciate and value everybody in every unique, individual body. Maybe our culture is so injured all we can do now is hate, judge and criticize not only ourselves but others.
Perhaps we’re determined to tear ourselves apart and nothing will stop us.
In the meantime, however, I live in a body, just as you do, and we all have a deeply private and largely invisible relationship with our structure of flesh, blood and bone. My choice is to remain present with the wonder and complexity of the human body, yours, mine and theirs. My choice is to enlarge my compassion and observation until I touch that edge of wisdom that acknowledges beauty and worth in all of physical life, be it human, tree or creature.
It’s autumn in central Maine, and the leaves are falling. Sometimes they flutter in the arms of a sly little wind under a crisp blue sky, skittering across the road in front of the car, turning me into a more cautious driver than usual because they look so much like a squirrel or chipmunk. Other days they’re torn from the trees by rain and heavy, tropical air under low grey clouds, misty at their trailing hems.
So many leaves in so many shades of copper, bronze, orange, red and yellow. A sodden chaos of leaves underfoot in the rain and an airy whirlwind of them on dry, bright days. It’s as though the trees have been holding their breath all summer and now they relax and exhale, releasing the tension of production, growth and photosynthesis, easing themselves from yesterday’s clothing and burdens, shaking and stretching in naked freedom and settling down with a sleepy grunt for winter.
Bits of the world, leaves, songs scatter in painted light. The days break. –Carol Frost
The past hours, days, weeks and months litter the ground, trodden, damp and fading. Their stories, whispered to the wind, of nest and hollow; bird, insect and animal; stars and rain and dew and the secret underground life of root, soil and mycelium, are lost. From their bodies new stories for the next cycle and generation of life will green and grow.
Photo by Vanessa von Wieding on Unsplash
I envy the trees their grace and patience. They know how to let go. They turn change into glory. They understand surrender to the fading light and changing tilt of the planet.
I, on the other hand, am not so graceful. Starting a part-time job, even doing something I love and am familiar with, has me wild-eyed and overwhelmed. My carefully constructed and comfortable routine is in pieces. I can’t turn the calendar page and fill in my accustomed schedule. Horrors! Now the days ahead are as naked as the bared trees, allowing me time to reconsider the true shape of things. I think of periods of change as bone time. I can’t see the bones of my life when the calendar is predictable and lists guide me through the day. Habit and routine are powerful, and after a time I stop noticing if I’m staying in balance, managing my time and taking care of my needs well. It’s only in these periods when all my schedules, lists and calendar pages are so many leaves of paper tossed onto the floor that I see the bones again.
To inventory our bones is to let go of possessions, distractions, noise, activity, thoughts, beliefs, habits and behaviors and ask ourselves what our true shape is. What are the deepest pieces of our body and soul? What is necessary in order to express our highest purpose? What destroys our time, energy and joy, and what liberates them?
Can we let go of what’s no longer useful? Can we give it to the wind, to the air, to the frost and rain and snow? Can we give it willingly, freely, with grace and beauty?
Yes, I can let things go.
But grace and beauty are noticeably absent just now!
Still, the trees in this season comfort me and show me the way. They’re not worried about next month, next week or tomorrow. They don’t seem to mind change. They release yesterday’s leaves with careless abandon and show their bones proudly to the sky. They know who they are and they take what they need without apology or shame. They rest in the security of the endlessly turning cycles and seasons.
I don’t think I’ll ever achieve their wisdom or serenity.
On the other hand, I know something about my own bones because life gives most of us more than one chance to begin again, and I’ve had lots of practice. I know shortly I’ll be back in a steady, effective, predictable routine that accommodates my new job as well as my current needs and priorities.
wind tugs leaves away my hat begs to follow guide me wind the way you’re lost i’ll be lost — Kim Robert Stafford
Life is change, and change is life. Old conditions give way to new conditions, and the process is always happening, no matter how stuck or helpless we feel. Chaos comes, picks us up by the scruff of the neck, gives us a good shake, and we find ourselves flung into something new, which will in turn gradually fade away.
Leaves fall. Light wanes. We are lost, torn away from what’s familiar, and then the way ahead opens before us and we’re found again.