Gratitude Heals

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In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul said to “show yourselves thankful.” (Col. 3:15)  It turns out that that is excellent advice for more than one reason. Gratitude is good for us. Professor Robert Emmons, of the University of California at Davis, says: “Gratitude research is beginning to suggest that feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress, and to achieve a positive sense of self.”  That is something that I’ve learned on a very deep level, and in the hardest way possible.

I’ve been to places in my soul where just breathing in and out was torturous. When simply continuing to live is the best one can do, it doesn’t take much pleasure to induce feelings of profound gratitude. A little less than two years ago, I was in that state. I remember the first positive emotion I felt. It was love for my youngest boy, a hug and a pinch. I was so grateful for that bit of pleasure, that tiny reprieve from constant torment, that I wrote about it in my journal and put a star on that page. My pain taught me what nothing else could: to feel grateful for every tiny blessing. From that day forward, I recorded every positive emotion that I felt in my journal, starring the page on which I wrote it. Soon, I began to have whole days that were full of little joys, and those days received big stars. Some days I would cry tears of joyful gratitude for the blessings I had received, immediately thanking God.

I’ve had many experiences over the past couple of years that inspired profound gratitude for things I had once taken for granted.  One of them happened when I went to my place of worship, the Kingdom Hall, in spite of feeling ill.  I knew that the depression resulting from isolating myself would probably be even more counterproductive than the exhaustion and possible pain from going. And my son had been assigned to do a public reading of the Bible. I had to go, so I prayed for strength.

Sitting in the little back room isolated from the rest of the congregation because of my sensitivity to fragrances, I began to feel that I’d made a mistake in coming. I was beginning to feel very ill and only wanted to go home to my bed. I really needed some loving encouragement from my friends, but I often don’t get to talk to many of them because of the fact that I have to keep myself segregated in my little room. Sometimes they come back to greet me, or they meet me outside, but not always. I was in that dark sort of mood that had me expecting nothing good. But immediately after the meeting concluded, I was blessed with plenty of friends to talk to.

As soon as I was alone in my bedroom that night, my eyes filled with tears as I realized that I had received just what I needed.  My heart overflowed with gratitude, and I thanked Jehovah.

I could have missed out on that opportunity to feel and express gratitude.  I could have remained in my dark, brooding state in spite of what I received.  The key for me was to notice.  How many opportunities for feeling and expressing gratitude do we pass up simply because we fail to notice all those little blessings and recognize them for what they are?  How easy it is to overlook the good and focus instead on all the big hurts.  There is ample opportunity in this world for feeling legitimately bad.  The practice of gratitude takes effort and practice, especially for a confirmed pessimist like me, but change is possible.  I used to think that pessimism and negativity was indelibly chiseled onto my personality.  I am happy that I was wrong, because gratitude is helping me heal.

Photo by Joel Montes

What Would Thoreau Think?

I wonder if Thoreau understood how incredibly privileged he was in his Walden shack?  I think maybe he did.  Even in his much quieter time, he must have known there weren’t many who enjoyed that kind of liberty and peace.  He would likely have been horrified had he been suddenly dropped into our time and into our culture.  If he resented the railroads of his time, what would he have thought of the roaring rivers of asphalt called freeways, never quiet day or night?  If he thought the newspapers of his time full of frivolous gossip and inconsequential happenings, what would he think of CNN, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?  I think he would have taken a stance that might have earned him the luddite label.  And maybe he would have become a little depressed like a lot of us.

Psychic pain is nothing new, but has it ever before in history been the epidemic that it is now?  I think not.  And it’s no wonder.  We are profoundly disconnected from each other and from the sources of our life and health.  We replace genuine connection with the sedating effects of chemicals, those we can get from a bottle and those that are released in our own brains when we pacify ourselves in front of our myriad of screens.  Even our beloved home, our little jewel in space, reflects our dysfunction and adds to our stress with it’s strange and frightening symptoms of planetary fever.

My mind is my escape.  I often dream of a little cabin by an isolated and beautiful lake.  All that would be audible there would be the rush of wind through the trees, birdsong, the buzz of insects, the lap of water at the shore.  Every day I would paddle out over the mirror-like water in a little wooden canoe.  I would stare down into the clear, clear water all the way to it’s brightly green, moss covered bottom.  I would watch schools of fish swim underneath me.  The cool air would be spiked with the spicy scent of birch, aspen, and evergreens.  Sometimes the warm sun would make the water seem very inviting and I would, like an otter, slip into the cool wet and swim awhile with the fish.  The cold shock would soon become a cool caress, and I would emerge dripping, enlivened, and vibrantly alert.

Air to Wash Our Minds

 

“There used to be a scent that the wind pushed in front of it in those days, which must have come from all the wild flowers and the sweet grasses that grew up there then.  This scent was strong that afternoon, and my father often stopped to breathe in, for he had told me time and time again that trouble will not stop in a man whose lungs are filled with fresh air.  He always said that God sent the water to wash our bodies and air to wash our minds.”  – How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn

Aldous Huxley on Mental Illness

The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal. Many of them are normal because they are so well adjusted to our mode of existence, because their human voice has been silenced so early in their lives, that they do not even struggle or suffer or develop symptoms as the neurotic does. They are normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted. ~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

What Happens When the Whole World Makes You Sick

 

“We think caged birds sing, when indeed, they cry.” – John Webster

I’m very, very sensitive to chemicals. Not just the ones everybody knows are dangerous, but the ones people use every day on their bodies and in their bathrooms and kitchens and on their sofas and in their yards. And what happens to me when I am exposed to those chemicals is not trivial. The sore throat and headache and heavy chest were uncomfortable, but not enough to stop me from living my life.

What stopped me was when I began to lose my mind. Usually when we say that, what we mean is that the person becomes so emotionally overwrought that they can’t think straight anymore. That’s not what I’m talking about. I literally lose my mind when I’m exposed to chemicals. I mean, I lose IQ points. I become stupid. I also lose my ability to function normally due to exhaustion and pain. That’s not okay with me, and that’s why I avoid triggering chemicals like the plague.

The implications are enormous. It’s not just that I have to be careful about what I use in the shower, or what I use to clean the toilet, although that’s part of it. It means I have to avoid other people who use the things that I can’t use. I can’t go in their homes or be close enough to them to hold a comfortable conversation. Public areas like places of worship and schools are nearly impossible for any length of time.

It’s like being forced into a cage.  At first there is panic. Then I begin to notice that the cage appears to be constructed of other people’s choices to use toxic substances. I see familiar faces on the outside of the cage and I see that those people have a key. At this point the problem seems simple. Just ask to be released. (“Would you consider using non-toxic products instead? No?”)

When this does not work, I become confused. I’m trapped. The people on the other side of the bars have a key to set me free. They seem like nice people. Many of them seem to like me. But they won’t use the key. They say the cage is not there. They don’t see any cage, so why don’t I just walk about like they do?

Pretty soon my insistence that the cage exists causes the people to question my sanity, and at that point they are even less likely to use their key. That’s when I become angry. I begin to rattle the bars on my cage, throw myself against its sides. I’m not strong enough to force the door or bend those bars. I become exhausted and crumple into a pile of sweat and tears on the bottom of the cage. I’m depressed and I’ve lost all hope of ever being released.

After some time passes, I begin to think that, with God’s help, I might be able to make some semblance of a life inside of the cage. I’ve reached the point of acceptance.   My mind and my faith hold the key.

 

“Save me, O God, for the waters threaten my life.  I have sunk down into the deep mud, where there is no solid ground. I have come into deep waters, and the rushing stream has swept me away.

And do not hide your face from your servant.  Answer me quickly, for I am in distress.

Reproach has broken my heart, and the wound is incurable.  I was hoping for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none. 

But for food they gave me poison, and for thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

But I am afflicted and in pain.  May your saving power, O God, protect me.

For Jehovah is listening to the poor, and he will not despise his captive people.”

– Excerpts from Psalm 69

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“A single gentle rain makes the grass many shades greener. So our prospects brighten on the influx of better thoughts. We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.” – Henry David Thoreau