Perspective and Gratitude


"But this is not another essay about how you should be grateful and compassionate. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s an essay about how to be grateful, not gratitude through the spiritual bypass of pretending not to feel what you feel but through occasional humble attention to what is going on around us."
Elizabeth Sullivan

Perspective and Gratitude
by Elizabeth Sullivan
Website: Thriving Moms and Parents

The other day I was waiting for my son’s basketball practice to end; I had driven the carpool. I was trying to entertain my younger kid who was hungry and crabby at 6pm. I felt strangled, victimized. I was cruelly poking at myself with barbed assessments of my life, “this sucks! I am bored! I hate waiting around--I have so many other things I want to do...”
But as I sat there fretting, I became aware of a homeless woman sitting nearby. She was dingy with grime, but also a bit striking or beautiful in a way. Her face had a kind of smoothness that made it seem like she had been raised middle class. What was her story? A neatly packed but obviously street-ready granny cart was parked at her feet. She sat quietly, observing everything. I saw her face light up with joy when an 18 month old boy toddled by her. When a docent came close she asked politely when the lecture was to begin. I checked the poster and found out she was there to attend a free lecture on neuroscience.
I felt in that moment just utterly penetrated with this woman’s existence--her intelligence shining out of her poverty and mental illness. Here she was, one possible future for me. Not likely, not really, and yet--it was not impossible either. I felt like I was on a continuum with her--if a few terrible things happened to me in a certain way. Perhaps.
It lent me some perspective, it helped me. My son’s whiney voice suddenly seemed not so bad. I pulled him onto my hip and took him to the cafe for a granola bar. I smoothed and smelled his hair and felt a little shot of patience run through me. I was lucky to have this life, these kids, the man at work who would come home later and kiss me and ask, “how was your day?”
But this is not another essay about how you should be grateful and compassionate. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s an essay about how to be grateful, not through the spiritual bypass of pretending not to feel what you feel but through occasional humble attention to what is going on around us.  Seeing and accepting people in their vulnerability, yourself included. tuning in to the fragility of life, and to luck.
But it is a complex thing to offer, isn’t it? I often meet with clients who cannot, at first, come into full consciousness of their own suffering (and thus shift it) because they are too guilty to admit all of what is troubling them. They feel they have no right even to examine what is plaguing them. They don’t want to “whine” or complain. They don’t want to “focus on the negative”.
And yet--they are troubled, distracted, there are symptoms and relationships are suffering enough to bring them to therapy. This feeling is sometimes labelled “survivor guilt”--the idea that somehow we shouldn’t thrive, because we owe our lives to those who didn’t make it, those we left behind (parents, siblings, friends). And it can also present as generalized politically-related guilt. I have worked with and known activists who have chaotic personal lives because they believe that only the cause really deserves their attention.
That said, I think it is good, it is instructive, for us to put ourselves in relation at times to those in extreme poverty and mental illness. When our lives seem threadbare and brutal and full of strain, it can actually soften us, to be confronted with those who have lost almost everything. They are close by, especially in the city.
It is difficult--it takes subtlety and wisdom, to acknowledge our inner suffering, and at the same time, to feel gratitude for what we have: health, hope, love, family support, creativity. It may be smaller than that, weirder or quieter: a cat, a book, a pair of boots that have walked with us out of a bad relationship, an idea, a friend. Or smaller still—a tiny bit of hope for no good reason.
Strengthening and adding to our sense of gratitude, while acknowledging what is hard, what is bothering us and seeking help. I think this might be a working definition of a healthy person.
I visited a friend’s tiny apartment the other day, and noticed a beautiful altar in her kitchen. When I asked her about it she told me that she had actually seven altars in her three rooms. Seven! It seemed like a brilliant response to life, to fill our rooms with little sites of sacred, holy objects and prayer, asking for help and worshipping beauty. 

Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center and the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center at Stanford University. She practices in San Francisco. 
www.elizabethceceliasullivan.com 
@NurtureMoms 
415.508.7086

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