27 July 2010

Week of 2August: Quality of Life - Gratitude



Reminds Me of the Time - Watching Mary


Reminds Me of the Time

Watching Mary

Life at Miriam's House afforded me many humbling moments. One such moment dramatically reversed a habit I had of complaining unthinkingly about minor irritations. It was Mary, who lived with us for 11 years and was the rock of our little community, who taught me a profound lesson about gratitude. That she did this without ever saying a word made the lesson immediate and indelibly printed in my memory.

It was a chance observation in a moment of petty upset about some silly frustration - I don't even remember what was bothering me. I was upstairs in my apartment, ranting and pacing, when I happened to look out the window. What I saw stopped me mid-rant. Mary - tall, dignified, wise Mary - was making her way down the street below our window. Something about watching her from above, removed yet observant, jarred me out of my self-involvement.

Mary had had a stroke not long after she arrived at Miriam's House, had been to physical therapy and equipped with a walker. One leg dragged a bit, and balance was a bit precarious, so forward motion was very slow. Step ... move the walker forward a foot ... step ... move the walker forward a foot ... Such a contrast to my anxious, revved-up pacing was the peaceful dignity of this slow progression that even I, in my high anxiety, got it.

So, stopped short, I simply watched. Step ... move the walker a foot ... step ... move the walker a foot ... She was headed toward the Rite-Aid, three blocks away, a trip from which I could return in 15 minutes, but which I knew would take her at least an hour. She would return with that peaceful smile on her face, chat amiably about what she bought, and head for the kitchen to make her meal. Because Mary never, ever complained. We would have thought her perfectly justified to return from the Rite-Aid moaning about how tiring it was that a simple errand took her so much longer than it would have taken any of us. But Mary never complained, and, more than that, her dignified acceptance of life's circumstances allowed her an inner peace and an outer calm that made her the center of stability and balance at Miriam's House.

This is the Mary that I watched from my second-floor window that day. Until she was out of sight at the end of the block - which, given her pace, was several minutes - I watched, perfectly still. There was no need for a sermon. Indeed, I was reminded forcefully of St. Fracis' words, which Mary embodied more than any other person I have ever known:

Preach the gospel daily. When necessary, use words.


The 12-Steps program uses the phrase, "an attitude of gratitude". In the Catholic tradition, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begin with reflecting on and experiencing gratitude to God. I have heard that cultivating gratitude in one's spirit is the best way to be close to the Divine. And doesn't Paul talk about finding God in all things?

But when I am in pain, it can be difficult to get to gratitude, notwithstanding my understanding of and agreement with these people who are far wiser than I. Sure, I get it that gratitude is an important element in my spirit - it certainly helps me to be in the moment without judgment or anxiety. Gratitude allows me to see beyond the narrow confines of my ego's assessment of circumstances in which I find myself; where my ego will judge based upon how it is being affected (and, most likely, add a complaint or two) gratitude moves me beyond such petty, self-centered concerns and opens me to the wondrous nature of the possibilities and opportunities of life.

So I try to cultivate gratitude throughout my life. Yet as much as I am certain that this practice transforms my daily life and relationships, gratitude mostly eludes me when I am in pain.

And, truthfully, I don't worry about that. Maybe some spiritual giant would be able to be grateful when suffering a migraine, but not me. Maybe I'll gain in maturity some day and selflessly praise God during those days when I am lying in a darkened room unable to move for the pain in my head and the accompanying nausea, but it's not happening right now.

The last thing I need to do when in that much pain is to layer around it some frustrated or guilty anxiety about not being a perfect saint when I hurt. (This is not meant to imply that I am a perfect saint when not in pain ... trust me on this.) One of the other qualities I have cultivated is self-honesty, so there is no deluding myself into believing I feel grateful when I patently do not. Neither does my practice of staying in the moment (or the Now, as Eckhart Tolle terms it), allow me the denial I would need to be able to act grateful when I am not.

Because along with self-honesty has come self-acceptance (well, it's all a work in progress, of course), I simply let it go that I can feel no gratitude nor can I take comfort in some "bigger plan" that God has for me.

Additionally, an important component in my spiritual life is to hold everything up to the Light, as I term it. Some would say, "give it all to God." I understand humans to be complicated organisms with chaotic intellectual and emotional processes, rarely experiencing a pure emotion. Thus, I expect to be conflicted much of the time: my joy, depending on the circumstances, might be tinged with sorrowful regret (this happened often at Miriam's House); I might feel anger and relief at the same time; my experience of hope can be tempered by a realistic assessment of the possibilities. I love the way Stephen Cope, in his CD, "Yoga for Emotional Flow" talks about this as he is describing how remarkably similar ancient yogic thinking on this is to Jungian thought. "The one thing often comes as two," he says, and that is just part of the human condition.

So, if there is some gratitude I feel during pain, it might be that Tim, my wonderful husband, has brought me a cup of tea, or that my meditation practice has relieved some of the difficulty. But this gratitude exists alongside real regret that I am spending yet another day incapacitated to some degree. And it certainly does not extend to being grateful for the migraine.

When I am not in pain, I am able to see how the migraines have changed me for the better, which is the Silver Lining to the Migraine Cloud, and the subject of my next post.

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