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Last night my daughter Maria and I celebrated Thanksgiving early since we won’t be able to be together on the official day. I was especially grateful that she liked the chili I made since I’m not generally known for my cooking! She also said she was grateful for her mom and dad and all her friends.
I told her I was grateful that she was my daughter, my “favorite girl on the whole planet” (she rolls her eyes – “you’ve told me that like a million times already!”) and also grateful to all the members of my family. Then I told her, “you know, on my next birthday, I’ll be 40 years old.”
“What?!!” – genuine shock and surprise this time.
So then I went on to tell her that I was grateful to some people from my past that she had never known. And I also tried to explain to her something I’d learned about gratitude – and something that I’m still learning now.
When you have the good fortune to be supported by people who truly love you, when exciting pathways of new experience open up before you, or when you make new connections to people who you discover you have something in common with, it is sometimes all too easy not to recognize how lucky you are. You get caught up in the moment, inspired by the sensations, emotions and insights that flood through you and you can forget that the events in your life sometimes have a very different meaning for the other people around you.
I tried to explain to my daughter that saying “thank you” is important, of course, but there is something deeper about being grateful. It has something to do with expanding your imagination to understand that each other human being has the same depth of experience as you do, through trials and triumphs, insights and confusion, loves and heartbreak, and the unending daily necessities of life. Being grateful means realizing that every one of these people around me is just as precious as I am.
I think that being grateful also means understanding and accepting things the way they are. Things are never perfect. There’s probably always something you’d like to change, but usually if you pay attention, you will find that you are surrounded by gifts.
What happens when you can’t see that your friends, your family, your teachers, your neighbors, your peers, and the other members of your community are actually gifts that life has given you? You can become so accustomed to these faces and the situations in which you encounter them that you stop thinking of them as being special. You may look for ways to alter these situations to make them more to your liking without considering that the consequences for others around you will be so much different than they are for you.
I told my daughter these things not because I think I am so wise, but rather because I know that I have failed too many times to be grateful for what I have. Too many times I have thought too narrowly and done things that I hoped would improve my life, failing to see that I was hurting the people around me. In the worst cases, I did know that others would be hurt, but acted as if the only choice was between loyalty to them or to myself. I failed to see that there may have been a third option, perhaps to do a similar thing to what I wanted, but in a different way, taking others into account and working hard at the challenge of communicating.
When you hurt the people around you, in the end, you hurt yourself as well. This Thanksgiving I am trying to learn how to be grateful for this lesson at the same time as I see the unnecessary pain I have often caused the people I love, some of whom I have lost because of my blindness.
I tried to say these things in a way that my 6-year-old daughter would understand. Of course, she hasn’t lived through all the things that I have, so it probably didn’t entirely make sense. But I hope that she will remember something that will make it more likely that she will develop gratitude as a practice much sooner than I have and save herself some unnecessary grief.
After dinner, she showed me something that suggests she is well on her way. As we were eating slices of lemon meringue pie, she asked “why do they put all this whip cream on it? I just like the lemon-y part.” Shoveling frosting onto my plate with her fork, she said, “here, you can have this.”
Maria, who has been playing violin for two months now, had a breakthrough after her last lesson, announcing to me: “I just figured something out – playing the violin could be fun!” Last week, as part of her homework to “listen to any music by Mozart”, Maria and I watched a video of the world famous Hilary Hahn playing his 3rd Concerto. By chance, only two nights later, a friend invited me to the Baltimore Symphony on a night when Hahn was to be the featured soloist, this time playing the music of Antonín Dvořák. After the show, Hahn signed CDs. After seeing a picture of Maria and her violin on my phone, she wrote a short, sweet message:
After dessert I delivered the CD to my daughter. Upon receiving her gift Maria jumped up and down. “I must be the luckiest girl in the ENTIRE UNIVERSE!” she shouted. She said she would show the CD to her teachers at school, all her friends, her mom, and, of course, her violin teacher (“She is going to freak out!”). Then, after brushing her teeth, she had an unusual request before bedtime. “Can I please play my violin? I feel so inspired!”
Gratitude is a beautiful thing when it arises spontaneously, but it’s not a bad thing to also remind your self of its importance in a more deliberate way. Why not live your life in a way that makes the lives of the people around you better as well? Perhaps making gratitude into a regular practice can be a step in that direction.
During this holiday season I am grateful for the opportunity to teach the Feldenkrais Method, a practice of self-study that has made it possible for me to reach closer to my true potential in life. For me, “teaching” this method has always meant learning from my students as I share this gift, and constantly discovering the need to continue improving myself in order to serve them better.
I still have a lot to learn, but I’m lucky that life has not been short on lessons!
I want to wish you a peaceful Fall and hope you will be blessed with many, many gifts – most of them may have been there all along.