The Lost Art of Gratitude

Four days ago a social media feed shared something that I had posted three years ago to the day. It was a meme from Elephant Journal I had come across on Instagram:

It is not happy people who are thankful; it is thankful people who are happy.

2014 was my self-designated Year of Gratitude, complete with a gratitude journal and occasional Instagram images of things for which I was grateful. (How can it not be on Instagram if we are thankful for it, along with green smoothies, weird pouts, and odd filters which make one’s skin look like plasticine?)

And it was important for me. I read a lot about gratitude and happiness, and I learned some small but significant lessons about gratitude’s ability to change my attitude.

It has been about seven weeks (okay, who am I kidding: seven weeks to the day) since Eva was diagnosed with breast cancer. It feels so recent, but life has changed so dramatically that it simultaneously feels like a lifetime ago. I read a good quote today in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, by Joan Didion: ‘I don’t know what I think until I write it.’ Throughtout my teens and twenties, this was most definitely true for myself. I have changed somewhat in regards to this in my thirties, partly due to some major life events, greater emotional awareness, and a job that requires self-reflection and an ability to identify and suggest theories of mind in others, in person (writing letters to patients is generally frowned upon). But it’s still very relevant, as evidenced by this blog. 

So what do I think about gratitude now? 

I vacillate wildly. 

In less introspective, more cognitively-driven moments, I feel gratitude on a comparative level: ‘I’m grateful that Eva has cancer in Australia and not South Sudan’; ‘I’m grateful that Eva does not have brain mets’; ‘I’m grateful that we have two healthy children’, etc etc.

These are all indisputable facts. But they reek to me of compartmentalisation, and some sort of odd selfishness; by feeling pity for others worse-off than us, I can somehow put our experience in a neat box.

As one or two of us have discovered, feelings and human experience fit in a neat box much like an eight-man tent with 33 steel poles and a ground sheet the size of a football field eases back into its stuff sack.

And my lived experience – and I feel it is unfair to try and describe Eva’s as it hers, and is more complex and multifaceted than mine, obviously – is like that eight-man tent. With eight men in it. Eight rugby players, having a big weekend. With amphetamines and alcohol and Valium and weed and a lot of testosterone and having just won the league. So there are probably eight women in there, too. I’m having trouble with that stuff sack presently.

So this other, less cognitively-administered and compartmentalised part goes something like (and excuse the language): this is fucking shite. And fucking unfair. She had a breast lump 17 months before which no-one followed up on. She’s just had a fucking baby. She just lost a fucking pregnancy and a fallopian tube before that. And now she’s losing her breast. And her ovaries. And she’s like a fucking zombie half the time. And it’s an emotional and psychological cyclone for her. And she just gets worse physically, every two weeks, not better. And she has mouth ulcers. And poor appetite. And nausea. And headaches. And the steroids make her depressed. And she has to try and think about if she wants a new breast. Or whether she wants both breasts removed. In which case if she wants two new breasts. And it could fucking come back. And then what. And is she getting a cold today? And a breast-cancer survivor told her Tamoxifen is the worst drug in the world because it makes you feel like shit, and she has to take that for five years. WTF? 

And then compartmentalising, pragmatic, non-emotionally-involved Simon points out all the rational reasons about why everything will be OK. But I am highly suspicious of this compartmentaliser. I have an inkling that rationalism and reasoning are a way of being positive because it is so fucking terrifying to actually engage with the opposite. Now I’m all for optimism and visualising the positive and purple carrots and manuka honey, but I’m not going to trust those over chemotherapy right at this point in time. 

So, how to find this balance between terror and acceptance, emotional authenticity and cognitive safety switches, positive mantras and nightmarish possible scenarios?

And I am drawn back to gratitude. I am grateful for our amazing healthcare system; I am grateful that if there is a complication, we have easy access to expertise. I am grateful that in this washing machine of emotional gymnastics (or drug-fuelled rugby orgy in a tent – my metaphors are as disparate as my feelings) that people are kind and good and loving. I am grateful that there are still moments, hours and days of beauty in this (I write this in the dark, sitting on the deck of a friend of a friend’s cabin in the Byron Bay hinterland. It’s humid, but cooling slightly as dense raindrops start to fall on the row of frangipanis in front of me. Cicadas and crickets sing their song, and a distant white noise reminds me of the sea rolling in to Broken Head (new name for this blog?). Eva’s lying on the bed inside taking time to read. Kind strangers have opened up their property to us. There is most definitely beauty here of every kind.)

I am grateful for our children, in all their energy-sapping, joy-giving, life-enhancing, tiredness-inducing, lesson-teaching, smile-bringing loveliness. I am grateful to be with my best friend as she goes through this. I am grateful for all her skill and strength and character which always shines through, even in the tears and discomfort and fear and sadness. I am grateful that this is, somehow, a strengthening experience as opposed to a weakening one – despite the gulf of weakness we often feel. I am grateful for friendships, even as they are changed through this. I am grateful that the feelings of loneliness in this journey are challenged by people who elbow their way into the unpredictable and precarious experience when we are not so good at inviting them in. I am grateful for inspirational thinkers and doers and be-ers (beings?) who challenge us to somehow go on believing all the potential good out there. 

And I am grateful, somehow, in some weird way, that we can simultaneously hold the horror and the happiness, the positivity and the pain, the belief and the burden. 

And I feel better after that, and possibly know a bit more what I think now. 

(Main image from the deck of Sue and Pete’s cabin where we are staying for three nights. Beautiful people. Beautiful place.)

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Author: smenelaws

Husband, father, friend, vicarious cancer sufferer, doctor, amateur yogi.

4 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Gratitude”

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