It is that time of year again… the time to gather together with our family and friends and give thanks. For Thanksgiving this year in my home, we are hosting a small gathering of friends and family. If all goes well, the turkey will be moist, the sweet potatoes soft, the cranberries with just the right amount of tartness, and the salad crisp. But I have decided to add a new recipe to our celebration this year: a recipe for intentionally creating joy.
How do I propose to cook up joy this holiday? It starts with letting go of my attachment to having a particular outcome. This may be easy for some of you, but if you are a recovering control-freak like I am, then this can be challenging stuff.
I learned the hard way, by weathering the storm of my own illnesses, that life is going to happen without regards to how I think it is supposed to look. And, as many of you know, it doesn’t always look pretty. In fact, sometimes life downright hurts. Turkeys dry out, salads wilt, and sometimes our bodies fail us. Even best laid plans can dissolve in an instant.
But pain and hardship are powerful teachers. They have taught me that joy isn’t born out of achieving perfection, and lasting happiness doesn’t come from always getting what we want. In fact, I have found that joy slips through my fingers the more I grasp at outcomes that I think I am supposed to have. Being attached to ideas like: “I shouldn’t have this illness, or I’m not supposed to be in pain, or I’m supposed to be healthy,” creates resistance to what is in life and that resistance can distance us from joy.
Learning to flow with the river of life regardless of how things turn out, brings opportunities to glimpse joy. And by being grateful even during hardship and pain, we strengthen our ability to access joy regardless of our external circumstances. This liberates us. It lightens our load. When we flow with life and learn how to practice gratitude, we realize that even our pain cannot stop us from experiencing joy.
If that weren’t enough, science is demonstrating that gratitude actually improves our physical health. Studies show that the practice of gratitude strengthens our immune system, improves our sleep, decreases our aches and pains, lowers our blood pressure, motivates us to take better care of ourselves, and improves our energy, our mental health and our memory. Gratitude is a skill of resilience that we can practice to promote healing in our bodies.
This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a local TEDx event (TEDx Rainier) in Seattle. Among the inspiring speakers was an integrative family medicine physician, Tanmeet Sethi, who gave a beautiful talk about gratitude. What struck me most was when Dr. Sethi shared her own journey of learning how to be grateful even for the pain she felt with regards to her son’s illness. At the age of three, Dr. Sethi’s son was diagnosed with a severe muscular disorder called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. Now, I do not imagine that she wanted her son to have this condition, just as I did not want my son to lose his hearing, but as parents, sooner or later, we realize that we cannot necessarily control what is going to happen to our children. By releasing our need to control, and by practicing gratitude, we can free ourselves from the suffering that comes with resisting that which we do not want. The unexpected side effect of this practice of acceptance and gratitude is that we can more deeply access joy in our lives.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross said, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” It is the practice of gratitude, of kindness, of compassion, and of joy that helps us transcend our pain. And though we cannot choose whether or not we will experience pain, we can choose whether our pain will soften us or harden us.
So this week, I have an opportunity to walk my talk and let go of any ideas I might have about how this Thanksgiving should be. In years passed, I would have obsessed over the perfect recipes, prepared a royal feast, and spruced up the house with seasonal décor. But, this year I am just going with good enough. After learning how to feel good again in the face of illness, you better believe that I will find a way to laugh even if the darn turkey burns.
Albert Einstein once said, “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is a though everything is a miracle.” Could everything even include our hardships and challenges? Does everything mean even when things go wrong? Can we learn to be grateful for even illness and pain? Can we use these difficulties to grow our compassion, and our kindness? If so, what else might be possible?