Every so often, most of us go through a few days, weeks, or months when a raft of problems—simultaneously or following one on another in close sequence—emerges to trouble our lives.
We’ve had one of those summers. Without droning through the entire litany, I’ll touch on the most significant:
- In mid-June, the water pump that had wheezed and heaved in the cellar for many decades pulling water up from a deep artesian well, finally gave up the ghost, necessitating an expensive earth-moving and pump-and-tank replacement job.
- The old cellar door fell apart as we were moving the old pump and tank from the basement. Because no standard door would fit the space, we hired someone to build a custom insulated door.
- Expecting bumper crops of berries and other crops, we invested in a large energy-efficient chest freezer to replace a smaller, older model. The first one arrived damaged, so we had to wait another couple of weeks for a replacement. We’d already installed and half-filled the replacement freezer with strawberries, when we noticed significant condensation leaking onto the cellar floor, and called for yet another replacement.
- Following a reassessment, our insurance company threatened to cancel our homeowner’s policy after demanding barn repairs we couldn’t afford to complete within the time allotted.
- Both the family car and the big rototiller used to prepare the soil for fall cover crops needed expensive repairs.
- To top it off, from mid-July through early September, I suffered from a painful, undiagnosed health condition that troubled my mind, disturbed my sleep, and forced a sudden withdrawal from coffee, a decades-long addiction. (Oy! Did you know that caffeine withdrawal has recently been re-classified as a “transient mental illness”?)
My mom had a strategy for dealing with an often over-anxious child and adolescent (me). She’d insist on the spot that I say out loud at least one thing I felt thankful for.
“It never gets so bad you can’t find something or someone to feel grateful for,” she’d say. “Focus on that, and you’ll begin to feel better.”
It worked for me then, and it still does.
During each little domestic disaster this summer, I’d deliberately bring to mind a gratitude or two: A sudden explosion of volunteer sunflowers one sunny morning. The incomparable smell of freshly laundered sheets, grabbed from the line just before a rainstorm. The sight a heron swooping low and dropping to the edge of our pond to fish. A fresh-from-the-garden cantaloupe for breakfast. The woodshed stacked with enough dry wood to take us through the winter and into the next.
I felt grateful for a bountiful garden harvest, and for being able to keep up with the work required: freezers filling with hundreds of containers of berries and melons; two bushels of potatoes, a beautiful crop of garlic, and several crates of red and yellow onions already stashed in the cellar.
I felt grateful and amazed for the way each problem quickly got resolved:
Our local networks turned up a well-and-pump guy able and willing to innovate around our ancient plumbing and install a new pump and tank at a reasonable price.
Two farmer friends recommended an insurance company friendly to farm and rural properties, and we secured a slightly better homeowner insurance plan from them at a lower price than we’d been paying.
A customer-service representative from the major retailer where we bought our freezer stayed on top of our situation and called us every few days to inform us where we were in the replacement process.
Two neighborhood mechanics were able to return the car and the rototiller to service in short order.
The household emergency account dipped low, but we've already begun to replenish it.
I finally received a diagnosis for my painful condition and a therapy that seems to be working.
And so it went. Every problem resolved, bringing new cause for gratitude.
What is it about gratitude that gives the practice such power?
Most religions teach gratitude as a central tenet of of the faith. Twelve-step addiction-recovery groups promote “an attitude of gratitude” as an important aspect of staying sober.
Cogitating, I came up with a few reasons why cultivating gratitude works for me:
- It pulls me away from the sheer force of the painful circumstance or circumstances at hand, depriving them of the power to suck me into the downward spiral of “catastrophizing” (exaggerating a situation as much worse than it is or might be, projecting wildly into the future).
- It’s concrete and personally meaningful, something that brings my mind to sharp focus, as distinguished from abstract (and generally unhelpful) injunctions like get off the pity pot, pull yourself together, get a grip, look on the sunny side.
- It reminds me that my life is larger than its immediate woes. When problems arise, especially one on top of another, gratitude helps me engage with the rest of my life. It gives me the breathing space to discover what I can do about the problems (and do it), but also to let go of what I can’t.
Over breakfast this morning, again able to swig a delicious cup of coffee, I expressed aloud my gratitude for the mom who started me off with a useful tool that’s seen me over those rough patches, when in the words of Robert Frost, “there’s no way out but through.”
Do you have something you are thankful for? Please share your thoughts.