Friday, 2 March 2012

Choosing to live a life of gratitude

It was one day, while suffering from a acute gastroenteritis, that I lay on my bed moaning and groaning. I had been experiencing the pain and discomfort for almost two days and had had enough. I just wanted it to end. I wanted to feel normal again.

I vowed that I would never take feeling healthy and normal for granted again. I thought about how one only becomes aware of the functioning of one’s body when something goes wrong – or when in pain. I had never woken up before and just taken the time to appreciate the fact that I was experiencing no pain. I hadn’t ever awoken thinking, ‘’Hmm, today I’m so grateful that my leg isn’t paining’’ or ‘’wow, my stomach is feeling really normal today’’.

After feeling so awful that day, I undertook never to take feeling normal for granted again.

It is however so easy to take our blessings for granted. There are times when life becomes so overwhelming, that I tend to focus only on my challenges and obstacles. I am, by nature, a glass-half-empty type of person, so it is very easy for me to get sucked into a state of sadness and depression. I’ve come to realise that this happens when I lose sight of the little things with which I have been blessed.

Admittedly, at times life seems to throw one curve ball after another. I sometimes find myself so overwhelmed by duties, challenges and obstacles. Unfortunately, I even absorb other people’s problems and stress about these as if they are my own. I am also easily affected by other people’s negativity.

So for me, drawing myself out of this state of despair only becomes possible when I take the time to appreciate the good things in my life. Granted, there are days that it feels as if I am really grasping at straws to find the good things in my life. On days like these (when it seems as if blessings are few), my ‘ list of things for which to be grateful’ will include things like ‘today, there was no tsunami/hurricane/other natural disaster’.

I’ve had days where the kids are difficult – when they are constantly bickering, arguing and screaming at one another. Their voices start to grate on my nerves. And that is when I take the time to contemplate or imagine the loss of one of those voices from that rowdy chorus – if one of them should not be there for any reason – that possibility is just too awful to contemplate for too long. But it is enough to adjust my mindset. It forces me to move from regarding their bickering voices as the most awful annoyance - to regarding each and every voice with the utmost gratitude.

We so easily tell our complaining kids to be grateful for their food since there are so many starving children in the world. But do we ever really sit down and truly attempt to appreciate what it is to walk in the shoes of those with overwhelming challenges?

One evening during Ramadaan last year, Shakeel (12) and I had a little discussion just before it was time to break our fast. We thought about how hungry we were after not having eaten for about 14 hours. We tried to imagine having to go another 14 hours without anything to eat - the way so many children around the world are forced to do. It was only when taking the time to truly appreciate the extent of those children’s hunger and suffering that we could truly appreciate every morsel of food we consumed that night.

How easy it is to overlook everything with which we have been blessed! On a difficult day I sit in my tiny garden and take time out to appreciate each of my senses.
* That I can watch my toddler squish her chubby toes into the wet grass*
*That amidst the chirping of the birds I am able to hear her squeals of glee*
*That I can enjoy the fragrance of the flowers and herbs*
*The ability to enjoy the delicious warmth of the sun on my skin*

‘’After hardship comes relief’’ I was taught. It is through having to face the hardship and challenges that my appreciation of the ‘times of relief’ are enhanced. Like experiencing the ease from the pain and discomfort of a long pregnancy after the baby is born – when I was pregnant with 2 year old Aisha, I always joked that I would make a point of noting and appreciating the moment my nausea subsided and the awful metallic taste in my mouth disappeared (which happened immediately after baby's birth). And I did – what a wonderful feeling to be able to appreciate that relief! It even distracted me from the after-birth pangs and sore nipples.

I think about the times my hubby decides to abide by Eskom’s request for everyone to switch off their geysers – and how, when he forgets to switch it back on, I have ended up taking torturous cold showers (swearing at him under my breath all the while). How wonderful is it then to experience the next warm shower. It is only then that I really take the time to appreciate little conveniences like the fact that we have warm water, while so many people do not even have access to running water.

Sometimes when I look at pictures of myself taken twenty years ago, I am struck by how I’ve changed. I now am developing age spots and laugh lines, which – I am ashamed to say - scares me. But after much contemplation, I have come to view each mark, scar and line as my badges of honour- a testament to a life well-lived. Dr Phil, in his typical to-the-point and no-nonsense Dr Phil style, pointed out to a woman who was afraid of the ageing process that although the process of ageing is scary, it is better than the alternative (i.e. not having the privilege of growing older). So true! As a result I now wear my stretch marks and laugh lines with pride – and gratitude.

As South Africans we always tend to focus on the negatives about living in our country. Yes, we are still faced with major challenges as a country, but how can we possibly ignore how far we’ve come since the dark days of apartheid? How can we ignore the progress we’ve made? In addition, we also have been endowed with undeniable natural blessings, which are so easy to take for granted. It is only when we read about natural disasters in other parts of the world that we take the time to appreciate that South Africa does not really experience any major natural disasters. We enjoy sweltering summers (which are perfect during which to laze about on our beautiful beaches) and temperate winters.

[Now I’m not suggesting that we should, in our gratitude, turn a blind eye to the faults of our Government. Yes, there is work to be done and changes need to be effected. But we cannot deny how fortunate we are that our strong democracy, which promotes civil society participation in the legislative process, allows for us to participate in initiating, promoting and fostering the necessary changes].

In fact I'm not suggesting that we become complacent about any situation in which we may be unhappy. But when I find myself in a situation which I am unable to change or improve at that moment, I pause - and take the time to count my blessings - to prevent myself from becoming overwhelmed by despair, sadness or hopelessness.

And I remember that there is always someone worse off than what I am.

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