This past weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s a perfect reminder to take a step back and be grateful. I have a ton of stuff to be grateful for.
When I compare myself to my neighbours, family and friends, my life can look pretty sucky. We don’t have a place in Whistler or a cottage in the interior, we don’t have a new car, or go on skiing holidays. I can’t even go to Thanksgiving dinner at my sister in law’s house, let alone cook a turkey and smell all those delightful comforting smells. I have anemia that doesn’t seem to want to sort itself out; my legs feel like concrete at the top of a flight of stairs. I’m in pain a lot of the time, I can’t work, money is tight, we need a new bathroom (suspected wet subfloor…Eeek!) and there are lots of things that could use updating in the house (I’m not sure if the baby poop yellow Formica or the blue toilets need to go first…). On the other hand, I am warm. I am dry. I feel secure. My children go to very good schools, public schools. The hungriest they get is being stuck in the car with traffic. If I need to see a doctor, go to hospital, etc., I never have to think ‘Can I afford it?’. I am loved, and I have been since the day I was born. My life isn’t perfect, but it’s not awful either! To Quote Jann Arden;
“I’ve got money in my pocket
I like the color of my hair
I’ve got a friend who loves me
Got a house, I’ve got a car
I’ve got a good mother
And her voice is what keeps me here”
I have a place in the world- even if it has changed a lot in the last six years. I’m educated, literate and speak English. I have access to the world from right here curled up in my warm bed. I have the freedom to disagree with the government, and have my basic human rights cared for. I love where I live, and despite property prices, Vancouver is always in the top five cities for livability in the world. It’s beautiful, safe, and has a decent government (imperfect, but not tyrannical or idiotic). I’m married to an amazing person, I have marvelous kids, I have sisters and friends who are there for me. Compared to the overwhelming number of human beings on this planet, I am loaded with things to be grateful for.
The little boy living in the slums of Manila
Last spring, I watched an Al Jazeera East documentary series on people living in the slums of Manila. I highly recommend it; it’s on YouTube here. [An aside; the first in the series is about giving birth, babies, etc, it was a bit much for me. You can easily skip to the second one, and the other episodes will still make sense.] One of the families they filmed had a little boy who had had a brain injury when he was two. He had multiple physical impairments, looking very much like a child with cerebral palsy. He was completely dependent on others, he couldn’t walk or speak. But he had that twinkle in his eye, and an infectious smile, and I wanted to fly right over with an AAC device (in my previous life I was an AAC SLP: Augmentative and Alternative Communication Speech Language Pathologist. You can take me away from my job, but you can’t take the AAC SLP out of me.). They lived in a hovel built of scrap wood and corrugated metal. The little boy didn’t have a wheelchair, let alone access to education, a communication device, therapies, etc.
The shack had a front room, open on one side to the street, there was a private space behind a dividing curtain. The entire house was smaller than my bedroom, and I’m not exaggerating. (And I don’t have a huge house- it’s very standard for North American 70’s suburbia). It had a floor that was raised out of the mud, and the streets were a garbage dump.
The boy’s mother often had to leave him alone while she worked. The neighbours and his brother watched over the boy while his mother was out during the day (even if his brother wasn’t happy about it :-). They’d pop over to say hi, and if anyone heard him call out, they’d go and see what was up. Even in the worst living conditions imaginable, there was love and joy. Their lives were hard; harder than I can even fathom. But at the end of the day there was laughter and singing and hugs. We all know that money can’t buy happiness, but we act as if it could. Once you’re past a certain point, money and happiness aren’t correlated. If they have ‘enough’ to be happy, then I sure as hell do, too.
It’s okay to be sad. It’s ok to be happy. It’s okay to be BOTH.
Sometimes being happy is about giving ourselves permission to be happy. We have a funny ethos in the west where if someone is receiving assistance or on medical leave they’re not ‘supposed’ to be too happy, nor complain too much. I’m guilty of saying things like “She can’t be that sick, she’s able to go to a party.”. Oh boy, was I wrong. I’ve been ‘that woman’, and she will might be in bed for the next three days because of it. Because of seeing her friends, she will continue to have a reason to get up every day. (Just to be very clear, – I’m not alking about depression or other mood disorders. Nobody chooses to have a mental illness.). It’s also okay to be sad, but it isn’t an either/or choice. I find that westerners in particular have a hard time contemplating that someone can be both happy and sick at the same time. I don’t want to be a martyr or to even compete in the ‘suffering game’. There’s nothing noble about suffering in itself. Moving through that suffering, and coming out the other side without bitterness and resentment; not only surviving, but thriving in the face of adversity, that is something I aspire to.
Humans are pretty good at living through circumstances that are out of our control, but how do we thrive in horrible situations? There have been studies on POW AND holocaust survivors, what the people who survive do mentally intact did to get there. It comes down to chosing to be thankful for what they do have (even if the only thing to be thankful for is that you lived another day).
There’s a great viral video from a couple of years ago. It’s a woman on a flight from India, giving a male passenger hell for groping her, the conversation continues into the baggage area. He told her to calm down, she was over-reacting. She couldn’t have said it any better if it were scripted. “You chose the action, I will chose my reaction, okay!?.”. Cheer worthy.
When my child drops a glass of milk, I can choose to rant and rave, send them to their room and grumble through cleaning up, or I can say ‘Go get the rags, and we’ll clean this up.’. I know which one will lead to happiness, a closer relationship to my child and will probably get done quicker, too. I don’t always have a choice, but when I can, I choose to be happy.