Show gratitude for the gift of life

Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008

I once heard a man answer the question "How are you?" with "Can't complain, though I'd like to!" It's human nature to complain and life always seems to give us plenty to complain about.

Specifically for me, Juneau's rainy weather and the high cost of electricity and gas is plenty of fuel to operate my complaint machine.

Studies show a certain amount of complaining actually bonds people together and helps them not to feel alone in their struggles. However, it can be useful to examine when complaining is a harmless bonding behavior, and when it becomes toxic to oneself and others.

One way to re-channel the mental, emotional and spiritual energy that is drained by toxic complaining is to cultivate gratitude for the gift of life.

Life is a gift. Not a "vale of tears" to be endured until we die. With every breath we have a new opportunity to see this truth, if we choose. Another response I've heard to the question "How are you?" illustrates this concept. An elderly gentleman replied cheerfully, "Well, I'm vertical and I'm breathing!"

I learned this lesson firsthand a few years ago. I was recovering from major back surgery at the same time my younger sister was bedridden and dying of cancer. I would take slow, painful walks every day to rebuild my strength. One day while walking I was silently grousing to myself about how slow my recovery was going, when it hit me - "Be grateful for this step, be grateful for this breath!" I realized I would slowly get better and better, while my sister had lost the gift of walking and would soon lose the gift of breathing. It was a profound and deep awareness that I've never forgotten.

Love the gift of life. This is not to suggest a Pollyanna approach to life. Trying to escape painful emotions with false cheerfulness or new age axioms can be just as toxic as dwelling on the negative. Pain, grief, anger and disappointment are natural human emotions that need a healthy outlet. In addition, depression caused by neurochemical imbalances needs professional intervention. To suggest to someone suffering with depression or grief to just "think positive" is to do them a great disservice.

However, I am suggesting that even when experiencing a difficult or painful time in our lives, we can still love the gift of life. Just as in any love relationship there are periods we are more deeply in love and happy and periods that are more challenging, it doesn't mean we stop loving.

How do we cultivate gratitude for the gift of life? One way is to say or write a "gratitude alphabet" - naming one thing you are grateful for starting with each letter in the alphabet. By the time I get to "Xeroxes" and "Zebras" I always feel better. Another way is to write a thank you note or send a card to a friend.

One can also review their day at night, making either a written or verbal list of things they are grateful for that day, even and especially for the gift of breathing and the opportunity to live another day.

Another method is to pray, meditate or contemplate on something or someone you love, for example, a person, an animal, or a sunset. Visualize filling your heart with love, allowing Light to fill the core of your being. Then share that love with others as you go forth into your daily life. Look for an opportunity to help another person, make an effort to say a kind word.

Chronic complaining can become a mental habit, a rut in a path of the mind. Gratitude can also become a habit. Every breath is another opportunity to think or say, "Thank you for the gift of life."

• Wendy Hamilton is a clergy member of Eckankar, The Religionof the Light and Sound.

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