There have been two important days for me on the week that ends today: my birthday and Thanksgiving; an American festivity that I have been celebrating for some years now. I do so in part because I like its significance and in part (I must confess) because I found a restaurant in Madrid where they serve an extraordinary traditional menu that night. Every year since then I have celebrated my birthday having dinner at that restaurant on Thanksgiving. After all, if you are in good company in this crazy world and have a healthy relationship with your own life birthdays usually give you loads of reasons to be grateful.
This year I have also received something really special on my birthday, something I really wished for and a few good friends managed to get me without me even asking for it. It made me happy and gave me pause at the same time. I had felt a lot of love and affection from my family, friends, and work colleagues during the entire day. Would it have been fair or appropriate of me to feel sad if just one detail had gone wrong?
The answer is no. Yet I am aware that at least part of me would have felt disappointed. I guess this is not grave; it just means I am as human as everyone else. However, realizing that left me pondering my sense of gratitude, and how imbalanced our perception can be sometimes. I believe I am a grateful person; grateful to life, to those around me, and stubbornly determined to give back at least as much as I receive. But it is also true that gratitude, like most important things in life, is a choice, a decision you make, an attitude. And (as it often happens with so many things, too) the less you seem to feel gratitude spontaneously, the more determined you need to be to choose it, if only because it is usually in those moments when you need it the most.
Life is brimming with instant, immediate emotions because we are alive and we feel lots of things all the time. However, besides our initial reaction there is a huge margin for us to consciously choose our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. With them we can literally save ourselves or push ourselves further down to the very bottom of hell. In life you always go towards whatever you are looking to. There where you set your focus is the path you are reinforcing. This is why if you persistently see your partner’s flaws only you will live in a constant fight; if you get worried because you are feeling anxious anxiety will immediately build up further; if you always approach your conversations with your boss from a place of reproach and complaint you will only be feeding a deeper rejection of you. And so on. I am not suggesting we should never get angry; what I am saying is that we can and must choose not to get stuck to those emotions like flies to a light bulb.
I am deeply convinced of this: we must learn to manage of our thoughts, emotions and attitudes in our favor. We need to handle them in such a way that they become a facilitating force, a helping hand, a push towards our goals, an energy that nurtures and deepens our sense of happiness- of course, always within a realistic approach and an ethical behavior. Quite often, when you really take the time to consider if your way of thinking and your behavior are getting you closer to your goals or to how you would like to feel, your eyes open wide in horror as you realize you are working (often with all your might!) in a direction which is the opposite of the one you wanted for yourself. You are harboring thoughts that make you unhappy and you do not even know if they are true; you keep overthinking awkward situations without taking actual steps to solve them (thus squandering your energies as the problem only becomes more deeply ingrained); you keep having hurtful arguments with that person whose attention, affection or recognition you deeply crave.
The first time I became fully aware of this (a few years ago) I was very sick, with no certain diagnosis, no immediate perspective of recovery, depending on everyone for everything. I was overworrying a lot, which is what most of us would naturally do in those circumstances. But one day I came to a point where I said to myself: “Okay. This is bad enough as it is. Let’s start thinking in a way that helps me instead of making me even more miserable.” I made a list of the things I could still do by myself and (very especially) the things I could still do for others. I decided to trust the doctors; I decided to accept the situation and be patient (since, like it or not, I was a patient already). I decided to find ways to entertain myself, to make myself laugh with no other purpose than a few seconds of laughter. I decided that the very little I could do every day was worth the almost inhumane effort that doing it required. I admitted to myself that the treatments scared me and found ways to reward myself after each round. And I chose to think, every night before getting asleep: “I still don’t know how much longer this is going to last but I know I am one day closer to its end.” I was still sick for several months after that but I was awestruck by the difference my decision made.
There is wide room for uncertainty in life. This reality, often so unsettling for us humans (we are so insanely avid for safeness and certainty!) is actually a blessing: you can make your choices every step of the way and be sure that your attitude really contributes to create the reality you wish for in that blank space where life is not yet written. It is no magic: it is just logical. You create what you build.
The moment you realize that all you really want is for your thoughts and feelings to improve your life rather than worsen it your horizon gets wide: there is not a single situation in life, not one, that you cannot improve at least one tiny bit (or help yourself live through it a little more easily) by consciously choosing your attitude and working on and from it. It might require some discipline and effort and you might have to go (over and over again) for certain attitudes that do not come to you naturally, but you will feel the change from the very first moment and, with a little bit of practice, the outcome is astonishing and its effects multiplicative.
It is in that moment when, really, deeply and from the bottom of your heart, you feel grateful.
Pic: María Traver