Written in blue marker on one of those ginormous over sized Post-it notes in the employee bathroom at work is a quote:
"Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’ve got the good things covered, my family, opportunities, friendships, our complicated and wonderful country, my Pilates instructor, the delicate milk-foam design floating on my $6 coffee. I’m even grateful for the obvious, but often overlooked things, the translucency of my kid’s unblemished skin, freaking air, the Sun, and the smell of fresh earthy forest. Boy am I feeling really spiritual for that, like a gratitude ninja… I am grateful AF. I’ve got so much gratitude all over your face. BOOM.
But I can’t shake the feeling that Emerson was implying something else. If you read it too fast you might get off at “good thing.” I have always wondered, while washing my hands after using the loo in the employee bathroom, did he mean to include the “bad” things in my gratitude too?
Emerson died before he met my father’s toenails. I wonder if he would consider changing this quote had he had the opportunity to experience the trimming of them.
Unless you are a trained professional (or have a fetish) trimming another adult human’s toenails can be rather repulsive, even under the best circumstances. Friends, I am a trained professional and the circumstances under which I’ve trimmed dear old dad’s toenails are exceedingly far from anything considered the best.
My dad is a complicated old man and I have a complicated relationship with him. He’s 85 years old now and has maintained a sloppy bachelor’s independence, in spite of variable health and kookie behavioral tendencies. He spends much of his time alone, while very slowly smoking, reading and cooking.
And he hasn't been able to reach his feet in at least a decade and a half.
How can I possibly be grateful for the experience of trimming of my kookie elderly father's crunchy smelly toenails while sitting on a cigarette-ashed floor?
Surely, my paternal pedicure plight isn't the most traumatic thing that I or any one of us have endured. But it isn’t one of the “good things” that Emerson referenced.
I have a remarkable friend who recently shared with me her own journey with a far more serious trauma. She’d had an emotionally abusive childhood, and a physically and sexually abusive adulthood. As she replayed the narrative of her life, each passing year became more terrible* than the last. Her unbearable* pain would become exponentially greater with each unfolding horror*. Any one of the many events that she survived would devastate me. She recounted the lowest point in her life, with nothing to live for, but the sensation of feeling air touching her nostril.
As the yogis will tell you, our connection with our breath keeps us grounded in the moment and in touch with the divine. When we are connected with our breath we experience a rhythm and a flow to life that transcends judgement. Generally taken for granted, breath is the ultimate gratitude practice. Without the air you inhale right at this very moment, you’d be dead in minutes. A deeper inspection into the study of how human beings experience trauma reveals that staying connected to our breath helps our brains and our minds process what is occurring for us. And heal.
This sensation was the beginning of a change for my friend and, gratefully, she is experiencing a joyful and healthy life today.
Astoundingly, she’s not sorry for herself. No pity party. And never when she told me her story did she judge any of her circumstances or her pain as “good” or “bad.” She accepts her story as it is, and I dare say, she wears her courage better than a Kardashian wears glam.
How can I be bitter about toenails when in the presence of my magnificent courageous friend?
Has a lifetime of trauma qualified as a “thing that contributed to the advancement” of my friend. Hell fucking yes.
Is she grateful for the experience the same way I’m grateful AF for my cappuccino?
It’s not really about comparing the magnitude of the trauma she’s experienced with my appreciation for my barista’s fine art. It’s about the magnitude of her owning it, living it and her choosing how she wants to use the experience. And in that sense, her gratitude for the “contribution to her advancement,” can use my gratitude journal for toilet paper.
I will admit that the toenail clipping experience has indeed “contributed to my advancement.” I’ve learned that I am a person capable of deep unconditional love that transcends unacceptable toenail clipping conditions. Yet, overextending myself to the point of self denial can be avoided by setting boundaries supporting acceptable toenail clipping conditions. For this advancement, I am eternally grateful.
So how can we experience gratitude in our most challenging moments in life?
I think that my friend is on to something, it begins with feeling the air touching your nostril.
Just don’t breathe deeply around stinky feet.
Becoming an IPEC Certified Professional Coach
New Growth Coaching LLC
*Denotes my descriptor, not my friend’s. I have used these words for the purpose of illustrative consolidation. Her story is her’s, not mine, to tell.