Brand building through storytelling

The gift of gratitude

My friend Elaine used to celebrate her birthday with a potluck party for all her favourite women. Along with goodies from our kitchens, we’d bring stories about what had changed in our lives since we last got together. Then we’d take the floor, one by one. We exulted in new beginnings, from babies to businesses. We mourned hard losses: parents, jobs, marriages. Every year someone would cry, and someone else would share a heart-lifting insight.

I still remember the birthday guest who spoke about her marriage of more than 40 years. She and her husband had faced the same struggles as the rest of our group, often looking at each other with more disappointment than delight, yet they still held hands every evening. No one stirred as she told us what she felt: gratitude.

When we talk about gratitude, we’re usually chewing out our children for failing to appreciate the comforts we provide. “What do you mean, you don’t like it?” I once snapped in defence of some long-forgotten Christmas toy. “Think of all the poor kids who aren’t getting any presents. They’d be so grateful.”

It took me years to figure out that while I had the right—indeed, the obligation—to expect good manners of my son, my expectation of gratitude was way out of line. What I wanted that Christmas was not so much to make Ben happy as to be loved and honoured for my efforts on his behalf.

Though we can’t and shouldn’t demand gratitude of others, we can cultivate it in ourselves, as I discovered during one of the darkest times of my life. A friend recommended a new bedtime ritual: a few minutes’ thought about the highlight of my day. Since I couldn’t see any highlights, this advice seemed absurd–until it started working. I discovered that the smallest things—a funny story, an encouraging word, a good meal shared with my husband—had the power to fend off despair. Little by little, I surrendered to gratitude.

No one has described this blessed state better than the American essayist Nancy Mairs, whom I think of as a friend, although we’ve never met. She writes about her life–a life defined by the diminutions of multiple sclerosis.

MairsWhen I started reading Nancy’s work, she could still walk with a cane. Now she uses a wheelchair and types with voice-activated technology. Believe it or not, her writing sparkles with zest. While she can’t change the course of her disease, she can determine how to cope with it. She counts herself grateful to have fulfilled all her dreams despite MS. She has raised three children (never mind the fear that she wouldn’t live to see them grow up), made a life as a writer, found comfort in a lasting, if not always faithful marriage. (This woman’s not your stereotypical saint with a bedpan, which is partly why I love her.)

She laughs a lot–especially at what she calls the “pratfalls” caused by MS. In Carnal Acts, she describes herself “sprawled flat on [my] back, helpless under the ecstatic kisses of a spotted mongrel with a comic grin who is thrilled to have someone at last get right down to his level.”

But her real subject isn’t MS; it’s the full range of life’s challenges. As she sums up, “At random we are dealt, along with our calamities, opportunities: to take care of one another, to practise bravery, to delight in even the tiniest accomplishments and pleasures. And so, since we get to choose how to interpret the events that befall us, why not look on them as gifts?”

I once loaned my copy of Carnal Acts to a delighted friend, who has MS herself and was then getting ready to buy her first wheelchair. She returned it over lunch, exclaiming at her newfound role model. I was halfway back to my office, still musing on Nancy’s words, when I realized that I’d left the book in the restaurant. I dashed back to find a navy blue-suited businessman engrossed in Chapter 1. “I was just getting into this book,” he said wistfully.

Although he didn’t look like a soul mate, we’d just shared a real connection. In the middle of our respective cluttered days, we’d both made space for gratitude.

Postscript: This letter originally appeared, in slightly different form, as a Chatelaine editorial  (December 1997; copyright Rogers Media Publishing). Strictly speaking, I should tuck it in the “popular articles” section. But today is Thanksgiving, and I can’t think of a more appropriate message. So here’s to gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving.

Posted by Rona

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