Saturday, January 23, 2010

Simple Pleasures and Gratitude

I look for small things to be happy about. I try to feel happy for things that many people take for granted. This is a conscious choice I made as an adult, when I realized that the grand events are few and far between. If I wait for earth-shattering things to make me feel happy or to be thankful (only) for then I would seldom feel joy or gratitude.

At one point when everything in my life was in alignment, when all was going as planned, when I should have felt very happy and content, hardly anything brought me joy. I got to a place where all I could see was the complaints. You can always find something to criticize. Let's say ten or twenty things about a holiday party I'm throwing for family are going perfectly, there will be at least one if not more things that go wrong. Before, I'd focus on that one thing and complain about it.

Another problem was misery loves company and I had plenty of people around me that would join in. They'd listen to me and add in their own negativity. The next thing I knew everything was focused on the negative. This is even more of a downer than my own thoughts were before voicing them. Some of the people who listen to the complaints are just listening but they are part of the problem if they don't try to shut down the negative talk and redirect to something less negative. I do realize that at some times, with some people especially, it can be very hard to shut this down and re-route the discussion. Some people just want to focus on that negativity. Some seem to thrive when living with a lot of drama but other people are really drained by it.

When I was feeling a 'lack of joy' I really had it good (in 20/20 hindsight) and it is a shame that I wasn't letting myself feel it at the time. I say that because then something happened in my life to shake things up and gave me a real excuse to be worried and fearful. The issue was when my husband, the family provider, was out of work. Suddenly a complaint I once had about my husband setting a budget on my monthly spending on our credit card seemed like the most ridiculous thing to ever have gotten upset about now that the income was zero. Complaining that the house cleaner missed a spot dusting seemed stupid now that I was stuck doing all the cleaning myself. Talk about hitting the reset button!

Something that escalated these ideas for me about enjoying simple pleasures was seeing my two grandmother’s age. When you watch a loved one become more and more frail, it becomes clear that what they wish for is the way life used to be for them. Both of my grandmothers would tell me of their suffering from physical pain and wish just to be alive without the pain. Neither feared death, both said they'd welcome it when it came, as it would alleviate them of their daily pain and suffering.

They also mourned the loss of their independence as their bodies didn't allow them to do what they needed to do to take care of themselves, very simple things like walking, dressing themselves, combing their hair, and using the toilet. Be honest: have you ever felt grateful for being able to brush your own hair or happy that you can fasten your bra or pull on your own socks? Can you imagine what they must feel like if being able to use the toilet on their own would bring them happiness? Do you even think about being happy over your ability to use the toilet unaided? I overheard a first year Boy Scout say at summer camp, "I never thought I'd ever feel happy for a real toilet but I can't wait to get home and use mine!"

My grandmothers were unable to shop and prepare meals for themselves and had to instead settle for meals made by others. Sometimes it was unhealthy and low nutrient fast food take out, and other times it was bad cooking or foods that made them feel sick, gave them heartburn or gas or some other future suffering.

They didn't ask for expensive gifts or new collector's items or jewelry. What they wanted was more independence, like they used to have, an able body, and less pain and suffering. Neither wanted more stuff, despite both being packrats previously, near the end of their life, they gave their stuff away or threw away most of it before they passed away. Both said they only wanted to own what they needed for daily living and remarked their surprise that they really didn't need many material things at all.

What they wanted most of all was love from their relatives and friends, compassion, someone to take time to listen to them when they 'needed to hear a voice', as my one grandmother used to say when she'd phone me. The biggest thing that brought them even more joy was when family would visit them in their own home. You see going out to see others had become a hardship and nearly impossible so it meant a lot to them when family could make the time to go visit them.

When you know people who get diagnosed with Cancer, go through treatment and then finally die after much suffering, all those same issues apply but in a more severe way, starting off very unexpectedly. Surprise! You have Cancer! This then begins a fast cycle of treatment, hopes, prayer, and then the suffering, good news and then setbacks. In some cases, the person does die. If you want something to shock you into learning to enjoy the simple things in life you should try sitting vigil and watching and trying to comfort someone in their last hours on Earth. Watching someone take their last breath is hard to describe. It rocks your world, believe me. The world is seen with new eyes after experiencing that.

Being around people who find joy, happiness and contentment with very basic things helped me see that perhaps complaining about not having enough money to go out to eat at the Mexican restaurant as much as I'd have liked is really a stupid thing to get upset about let alone complain to someone else about. Why not instead use my time to seek out inexpensive basic foods, to cook good meals at home with which wind up being more nutritious and flavorful than what I could buy in a local restaurant? Instead of complaining of the high cost of fresh baked bread in the bakery why not bake my own loaf? Instead of using our money on inexpensive crappy processed food desserts to eat once or twice daily why not make desserts from scratch two or three times a month and enjoy them on a more sporadic basis? Dessert is not an entitlement nor is it a necessity you know. Why not focus on the fun of creating good food at home and concentrate on the pleasure of eating a meal with your loved ones? Isn't that a main reason we want dine in a restaurant, to share a meal with someone else, for the company?

When things start to go wrong, the basic things are appreciated. When the heating oil company screws up and doesn't make the automatic delivery on time and we were left with no heat, I suddenly appreciated when the house did have heat. When the boiler broke and we were told it would cost at least $5000 to replace it, I suddenly realized I'd never felt grateful for that ugly noisy old boiler. When the washing machine broke I suddenly realized what a gigantic pain in the butt it presents a family of four that has to do laundry at a Laundromat or at a relative's house. Be honest, have you ever really felt gratitude for your washing machine? Or perhaps did you wish you could upgrade to the latest model when yours was working perfectly fine? Have you ever really felt grateful for heat in your home? Or instead did you take it for granted, or maybe complain that the house was drafty? Drafty is nothing compared to being in a home without heat; the discomfort is not fun to handle but the threat that the pipes may freeze at any moment is something to truly be fearful about.

As I began to shift my perspective and made a conscious effort to notice the small things, appreciate them, and find joy in them, my happiness level increased dramatically. This included in times when I was worried that the relative with Cancer may die soon, or when I was mourning the loss of a friend who left behind two young sons. It is not true that a person cannot find joy or feel joy unless everything in life is in perfect alignment and the conditions are ideal.

I am able to feel these small joyful things in the middle of chaos, in the middle of dealing with a problem, in the midst of stress (and you can too). I savor a gorgeous sunset seen from the driver's seat of the car while sitting in bumper to bumper traffic due to an accident, which has me worried that I'll be late for an appointment. I enjoy the flow of the river water swirling around rocks as sit at my mother-in-law's table sharing a meal, while I worry about her health. I enjoy laughing with a friend over something silly when a moment earlier I was worried about something happening with my son.

Each bit of joy quiets the mind, calms the mind, tones down the negative emotions, fear, worry and stress. Even when I've made a mistake and caused a problem and I feel badly about it, not over-focusing on the negative and instead letting the good things in life help me deal with the problems is my therapy. I don't pop pills to help me find happiness, not even the ones so frequently advertised and prescribed by doctors, I use gratitude. Pills can't change a perspective or help a person feel thankful.

It really helps me to look for things to be grateful for and to savor those things. This is an opposite action from looking for what is wrong and then focusing on the problem. The reason I think this works is if you can narrow it down to feeling grateful for things that most people never think about due to taking them for granted, the amount of good things in a person's life is many times more than the problems. This perspective allows a person to view their life as abundant, full and good, with perhaps one or a few challenges swimming in the midst of all the good. Bolstered up with positive feelings, riding on an always flowing but never fully receding tide of joy enables a person to tackle the issues at hand easily. If you're still having trouble imagining what I'm trying to convey, imagine a war of good vs. evil. If the good guys have 27 in their army and the bad guys have three, who is going to win? With 27 cheerleaders giving positive emotions the three nasty ones cannot bring the person down enough to make a significant impact.

I sometimes blog these simple pleasures that I notice and enjoy. Perhaps I'm not sharing them to show that nature photo so you can enjoy it too. I'm not showing off that I think I did a good job with my photography method or bragging about my camera. What I'm really doing is trying to give you a glimpse inside my heart and mind about what makes me tick. I noticed that small magnolia bud and enjoyed the promise of what it will bring in the springtime, in the midst of this very cold January, it pleased my soul and helped me not resent the cold weather and the more than typical use of (and expense for) home heating oil. What is important is not the bud, not that sunset, not the texture of that tree bark. What matters is that I noticed, and the simple pleasure of it gave me a bit of joy. I think that artists think this way too. They are sharing something they saw. The fun in viewing art such as at a museum or gallery, is to try to figure out what you are looking at to decipher what the artist was thinking or seeing. What did they want to convey to the viewer, if anything? I want you to think about finding happiness from the simple things too, for the good that it can do your soul.

If your life is not full of joy then it truly up to you to figure out what changes you can make to improve it. What problems need solving, what actions you need to take. But even with right actions and good goals your emotional state and your outlook on life is what you make of it. You control your perspective. You can choose to act like a bitch or a bastard; that's what a person does (it is truly a choice). When a person has a good life and they are surrounded by many things to be grateful for, but they fail to notice, and instead choose to focus on only the problems, then infect others around them with their negativity, they have created their own misery. I agree when Dr. Phil says, "How's that working out for you?" If you're not happy with your life, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by shifting your perspective.

Feel the gratitude. Appreciate the ordinary in life. It's good for the soul.

Photos copyright ChristineMM, 2010. All taken in Fairfield County, Connecticut, USA.


Karen said...

Thanks so much for your awesome attitude and many great posts. Please accept the Lemonade Stand Award from us. Thanks from 2 homeschool moms who appreciate you!
Karen and Michelle

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Two thoughts:
1) Sometimes I know I get so busy that I forget to appreciate the small things. And then a spectacular sunset caught just as I drive west, or a puppy playing, or a joyful song on the radio will remind me to stop, if just for a moment, to really see.

2) Speaking of being able to go to the bathroom--which is a greater blessing than we realize--we Jews have a morning blessing that reminds of the importance of even such an earthy event.It is called Nikavim, Nikavim, Challulim, Challulim--and it goes like this:

Blessed are You, Eternal our G-d, who has created the human being with wisdom, creating within us a wondrous system of tubes and ducts. It is well known before your glorious throne that if but one of these (that should be closed) opens, or one of these (that should be open) were to close, we would not be able to exist and stand before You. Blessed is the Eternal, who heals all flesh and makes it possible for us to exist."

My Hebrew students call this "the bathroom blessing" because it is said immediately after one's first visit in the morning.

Beth said...

Your post was forwarded to me by rational Jenn. I am grateful that she sent it. What a poignant reminder. Thank you.

Greta said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this post. It was such a timely reminder for me to take a step back and appreciate my life for what it is, and be thankful for my blessings.