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Gratitude as a lifeline

I've always had a strong belief in silver linings; no matter how bad the situation, there's always something positive that can come from it.

I used this to overcome one of my own most anxious times - exams. I would study prior to the exam but as the day approached my anxiety would increase to the point where I could feel a panic attack might ensue. So, I would begin to focus on the silver linings. If the exam went well - which I defined simply as me getting through it and answering the questions - then, I would buy myself a bunch of snacks and treat myself to a movie.

If, on the other hand, it went terribly, no matter what that meant - then I'd buy myself that new home computer that I had been dreaming of. Sure, I might have failed the exam, but I'd have that awesome new tech toy I'd been dreaming of! A silver lining.

It didn't always work. But mostly, it took the sting out of my anxiety and helped me to get through. I only flopped in one exam (and yes, I did buy that computer) and I gained a few kilos from all the snacks. But I got through. And seeing the silver lining is a powerful tool when you're looking to find a way through a difficult time.

And that brings me to the topic for today; gratitude. We might say the word a lot, but have you ever stopped to work out just how powerful gratitude can be? You might think of gratitude as being thankful when someone buys us a nice gift, or when our partner cooks us a lovely meal - but it's far more than that.

Gratitude lets you see those silver linings

You get wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Silver lining? You've finally got time to read all those books that have been stacking up.

It's silly, sure - but the truth is that you can find a silver lining in much that happens to us throughout life.

A few years ago I was diagnosed as having the early signs of Parkinson's. My specialist told me that it was in essence a death sentence, and described the most likely trajectory of my next few years - his parting words to me were "If you don't have insurance - get it right now, before I make the official diagnosis because you won't be able to get it after".

To say I took it badly is an understatement - I went to pieces. All I could see was the degeneration I was about to undertake, the lost future and dreams. I did actually start to lose balance, to slow down, to stumble more, and I fell into despair. Telling my family what lay in store for me was one of the hardest things I've ever done.

And then, through a second opinion, I discovered the miraculous - that my first specialist had been completely wrong. Not only that but the medication he had put me on was the cause of my loss of balance. Within a short period of time, my life flipped back and my future looked brighter once more.

I am not proud of how much I went to pieces during that time, and I like to think that one of the silver linings that came from that time is that nugget. Hopefully, the day never comes but if it does, I like to think I'll handle things far better the next time around.

More than that though - I learned gratitude for my life, my body, my family, and my future. I have some familial history of heart disease and early death in men, and before this time I'd convinced myself I wouldn't make it to 60, let alone beyond. I still think that's a possibility - but I have gratitude for the time I do have. And that is a silver lining from my brush with an incorrect diagnosis. I told this story to a friend recently, and they asked me how angry I must be. And when I considered it I realised I'm not actually angry at all, I'm grateful. Grateful that I woke up and can enjoy life more, thanks to this event.

Gratitude helps us to be mindful

Stop for a moment and consider what you are grateful for. I mean it, this moment stop reading, close your eyes, and consider what you're really grateful for. Take a moment or two then come back to reading.

When I do this I usually start with my body. Sure, it's cranky and old, my hair is receding, I have numerous medical conditions and sores and aches. I'm currently trying to lose weight and get fit and it often feels like my body betrays me at every turn. The scales have been condemned to the seventh circle of Hell at least twice this week.

And yet, as the Sunscreen song says, "Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it, or what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own". I have all my fingers and toes, I can walk to the beautiful lake, hear the birds and see the view. I can soak in the glory of the world around me, communicate with people around the world, see them and hear them and laugh with them. I can hold my loved ones close, touch my wife's face. All because of this body. I may complain about it at times, but I'm thankful for it.

And for that lake, and that view, and those birds - especially the birds, amazing and wondrously beautiful creatures that they are (despite the paintwork they love applying to my car). Most of all, of course, I am grateful for my wife, my family and my friends.

And when I stop to feel that gratitude, it places me in this moment. It helps me to be mindful, which in turn helps me to be healthier physically and mentally. Gratitude is the engine that drives a healthy mind.

Gratitude shows us what's valuable - and what isn't

I have to admit that one of my (many) flaws is a love of tech. When new gadgets come out, a part of my brain turns gooey and wants to own them, no matter what crazy price tag is attached. I bought the very first home computer in the UK, I bought one of the first Personal Data Assistants in the UK, one of the first smart phones. When robot home butlers come out I'm sure I'll be in the line-up too.

But when I stop to think on what I am truly grateful for, that stuff almost never makes the list. Gratitude helps me see what really makes a difference in my life; people, for the most part. I'm grateful for the experiences I've had, the people who share my life, the places I have been and the things I have seen. Items I own rarely, if ever, make it onto that list.

That doesn't mean it's wrong to be grateful for what we own - just that it's not as important to me as other things. And there's the key; gratitude helps you see what's most important to you. Which in turn allows you to focus your life on what makes you happiest. Knowing that is a true key to success.

Gratitude can help us survive almost anything

I was given a copy of 'The Happiest Man on Earth' recently, a book by Eddie Jaku. Eddie experienced and witnessed some of the most horrendous events of our modern age. Few can imagine the horrors of the German extermination camps experienced first-hand - but gratitude for life and a willingness to persist drove Eddie to write this life-affirming and positive book. Despite what he experienced and lost, Eddie was grateful for so much. He wanted the rest of us to understand how to use gratitude in our own lives to be more positive and happier people.

And he is not alone.

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison on a life sentence, much of that in a cell smaller than most bedrooms, just a couple of metres on each side. He slept on a straw mat, was isolated from his fellow prisoners and mistreated by the guards - for decades. Twice a year he was allowed a letter and a visit.

He could easily have turned to bitterness and anger, he could have led South Africa into a very different direction when he was later released and placed in a position of power. And yet he took a different path of gratitude. Desmond Tutu said of Mandela, "Suffering can lead to bitterness. But suffering is also the infallible test of the openness of a leader, of their selflessness." Mandela was able to be grateful for his relationships, even with the guards. One of them spoke of him later and said “He was my prisoner, but he was my father.”

Gratitude is the water that tempers our experiences, cools us and hardens us to move on with life, when life forges us.

Gratitude makes suffering optional

A quote that is often attributed (incorrectly) to Buddha is "Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional".

Whilst he may not have said these words, the ethos behind them absolutely aligns with Buddhism and the core principles of meditation and mindfulness. Inevitably life brings pain; from the moment we are born we are travelling towards death, with loss and pain spread liberally along the path. Everyone we learn to love will be lost at some time, everything we gain is ultimately lost too. Our bodies fight gravity and time and no matter how wondrous these instruments truly are, few amongst us are immune to pain. It really is inevitable.

Suffering, on the other hand, is something we have more control over. Take arthritis, something that runs in my family and runs through my bones and joints on a daily basis - especially during the cold months. Physically the pain is somewhat unavoidable. But whether I decide to suffer is up to me. I can choose to see my arthritis as a curse, to feel sorry for myself or be angry that my siblings avoided the worst of it whilst I got the lions share.

Or, I can choose to take a benign approach to it, see it as a price that must be paid in order to experience life and movement. Perhaps I could even choose to see it as a gift - something that helps me see how much my wife loves me, when she gently massages my hands at the end of the day to ease the pain a little.

I can choose to be grateful for the positives having this body presents, and choose not to suffer or to give in to the pain. It might hurt to type, some days, but I can choose to see that as a small price to pay for being able to write at all (something I love to do).

Gratitude is, like most things in life, a choice.

But I hope today I've helped you to see how positive and useful that choice can be, should you decide to make it.

Take care of yourselves, and each other.


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