Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to witness the fragility of our lives. Friends have faced illnesses, unexpected deaths and tragedies, unwanted divorces, losses of employment and devastating financial disasters. Each incident and loss created an awareness in me and forced me to assess my own life and ask – what is really important to me? It is obvious in the seasons that everything changes. Everything and everyone will pass away in time. Life is transitory in nature. If I realize this, then how do I live my life. What matters? What do I live for? Is it family, friends, connections, experiences, work or success and possessions? What is valuable to me? As a few friends of mine have often quipped – no one on their death bed says: “I wish I had spent more time at work”. Rather they say, “I wish I had spent more time with my children, family and loved ones – interacting, doing, being and sharing moments.”
I also realized that the awareness of life’s fragility and terminal nature do not always stay with me. It is like driving down the highway and seeing a horrific accident. Everyone slows down, drives cautiously for a couple of miles or minutes, then returns to their usual aggressive self-absorbed unaware driving style. It is as if the awareness is erased. Or is it that somehow the concept of death just does not apply to us? Are we living our lives as if we will live forever? Trauma and experiencing loss jar that complacency. The question becomes – how can we maintain the awareness of our mortality without being obsessed with death or spiraling into the depths of depression? It seems to me that developing an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for our lives holds the answer. Gratitude is an attitude that we can choose in every moment.
Attitude in flying is the relationship between the wings of the plane and the earth. Our attitudes are our relationship between our perspectives (how we view things, our leanings) and our grounding. My college roommate used to wake up every morning and announce that, “Life is a poop sandwich and every day we take another bite.” He was a joy to be around. Everything he looked at was poop. A couple of marriages, medications and lots of therapy have led him to a different perspective, which includes hope, acceptance and gratitude. He did not turn into Shirley Temple on the “good ship lollipop,” but at least he is not Debbie Downer anymore. Our attitudes reflect the perspectives or lens from which we view our lives and the world.
The word gratitude comes from the Latin “gratus” for thankfulness and is associated with the Latin “gratia” for grace. Gratitude is a positive attitude/emotion steeped in thankfulness, hope, compassion, acceptance and joy. It is not possible to experience gratitude/thankfulness and fear/anger at the same time; just as it is not possible to be dancing in love and feeling abandoned. Gratitude is an orientation, a choice we can make in every situation. We can look for what is good in the picture, not what is wrong with the picture. It gives us a different and higher perspective. It frees us to make connection.
One of my mentors would write notes of appreciation to people every time he would venture off. We ran a treatment center on a Greek island. I was very shocked and embarrassed the first time I received a note. I questioned him on why he was writing those notes. He responded by saying he did not want to leave things unsaid, he wanted people to know how and why they were important to him. I truly understood the value in that when one day he went off to do a training and never returned. He was on the mainland of Europe and diagnosed with a terminal condition. He went back to the United States and never returned to Greece. I visited him in the US before he died. He had no regrets. He had told everyone what he wanted to say and had expressed his appreciation, love and caring. Each person in his life knew how valuable and important they were to him and why. They knew they mattered. This is the grace of gratitude.
How do we arrive at such a place of grace? It begins with the awareness that life on this plane is finite. It does not go on forever. I know that I have had more breakfasts than I will have in the future. It is this awareness that I must accept. How do I engage, enjoy and appreciate the life I have in the present moments? There is a meme on the internet in which Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, “we only live once.” Snoopy replies, “Wrong! We only die once. We live every day.” The first step is to be present in the moment, accept what is and find appreciation in whatever is in the moment. The next step is to realize that everything passes and changes. We may lose track of that awareness. Imagine something or someone that is important to you and think/feel what it would be like if that “something or someone” is no longer in your life. Imagine the hole that would exist. Then truly appreciate what you currently have knowing that it will pass in time. This is to enter through the door of gratitude into a meaningful, heartfelt life.
A meaningful and heartfelt life requires us to take personal responsibility. It means that we care for ourselves in order to be fully present in life in the moment. Being responsible means I show appreciation for myself and others. I give thanks and say thank you. I act in ways that demonstrate appreciation. I eat responsibly. I take care of my body. I express gratitude. I manage my affairs in such a manner as to cause the least amount of harm. I see the connectedness of all things. I understand the difference between needs and wants. I find contentment and appreciation in the simple and the ordinary. I enjoy nature. I choose to savor life and relationships. I focus on what is right with the situation and add to it in a heartfelt manner.
James W. Osborne, MS, LPC, BCPC is one of Natural Nutmeg’s 10 Best Winners for Holistic Psychotherapy/LCSW/Counseling. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Board Certified Professional Counselor, Board Certified PTSD Clinician with over 40 years of clinical experience. He employs Mindfulness, Jungian Psychology, Gestalt Psychology, ACT, EMDR and value-based techniques unique to the individual to support positive health changes. His undergraduate degree is in Philosophy and he views psychotherapy as philosophy in action.
He can be contacted at Osborne Counseling Services in Kensington. 860.384.4971 or at: JWOsborne.MS.LPC@gmail.com.