In daily life, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful
But gratefulness that makes us happy
As a non-American, I love that November is a period of gratitude here, in the United States. Knowing that I am a huge advocate of gratitude as a daily practice, you will probably not be surprised that Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday. For me, gratitude is often as simple as: Thank you sunshine! Thank you little flower on the trail in front of my apartment building! Thank you stranger for returning my smile! Thank you fellow automobilist for letting me in! Having an attitude of gratitude not only makes me feel good, but it is part of my effort to consciously take in the good and cultivate it, knowing that it is ultimately the way I want to be in the world. There is enough negativity out there; I really don’t want to add to it. But to experience the truly healing power of gratitude I had to go further.
Indeed, what I have discovered for myself is that the most healing and life transforming dimension of gratitude was to be able to feel it even for my hardest experiences. Gratitude does not mean that one is naïve or falsely positive about the state of the world or even the real and painful difficulties in one’s life. Gratefulness is NOT for sissies!
Let me explain. Would I choose again some aspects of my life if I had the choice? An honest answer to this is: probably not… in particular concerning the circumstances of my birth and the violence of my childhood. But I also know that I would not be who I am today without what I have gone through. And I really mean it.
Some of my colleagues in the international peacebuilding field introduce me by saying that I am the most qualified person they know to talk about survival and resilience in the most dreadful circumstances. They usually explicitly refer to my experience working for more than 25 years in what might be considered some of the most desperate parts of the world, at least at the time and place I was there. And I have certainly learnt a lot about myself and humanity along the years, including more than once facing the possibility of my own death — and even more importantly that of others’ deaths –, and in witnessing the amazing capacity for resilience in human beings.
What my colleagues generally don’t know is that I also owe that first hand experience of not only survival but true resilience to the little girl I once was. Without her extraordinary capacity to survive and live and be determined to make sense of the unthinkable, I would not be here. And without her courage and extraordinary resilience, I would not be who I am today.
This is where my gratitude is grounded. It also includes acknowledging how lucky I have been to survive, to have felt the presence and support of Spirits my whole life, to have found along my paths people who have been there for me – doctors and nurses who tried to protect me as a young child; teachers and educators who gave me opportunities to study that I did not know even existed; friends who have been present even when they could not phantom the ramifications of what I was going through; and so many beautiful people around the world who, in the most horrific circumstances, have shown me over and over again the beauty of our humanity precisely when and where one could despair the most about it…
And this may be why I have been able, in the past, to say in total sincerity that I was thankful to some of the people and events in which I had been hurt the most as, each time, they have forced me to stop, work on myself, heal, and open up to aspects of myself and others that I would have never even imagined existed. And this is how I continue to grow, taking responsibility, not for things that I could not choose as a baby and a young child, but recognizing that at least now, as an adult, I have a unique role in creating the story of my life and in choosing what is the most nurturing for me and others around me.
This conscious choice has not only made me a better human being (hopefully!) but it has been one of the most important tools for me to deal with a chronic depression first diagnosed when I was just five years old, reinforced by the continuation of abuses and traumatic events during my entire childhood and part of my adulthood, and by a lineage of mental health issues on both sides of my blood family. Neuroscience is now helping us to understand how gratitude helped me shift this very concretely. Gratitude, when practiced on a regular basis, does not just lay down a more positive attitude, no matter what happens in our lives. It does not just grow new synapses in our brain, remarkable as that is by itself. It also reaches down into our genes and changes how they operate.
That’s right. When we express gratitude, we also alter the expression of our genes – a phenomenon that scientist sometimes express as “our genes remembering.” In other words, gratitude as a sustained practice can become one of the non-genetic factors that cause the organism’s genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently (epigenetics). What this means is that we can and will alter our destiny. This, my friends, is one of the greatest gifts of gratitude.
So, being able to feel a sense of gratitude for all things – good or bad – is not for sissies. But contrary to what the conventional wisdom would be, I don’t feel that it has made me tougher. If anything, I think that it has made me more loving and compassionate. It has also made me happy. And today, I can say – not as a metaphor or a nice thing to say but as a very concrete experience: I am not grateful because I am happy; I am happy because I am able to deeply feel gratefulness, even in the most difficult aspects of my life.
Béatrice | Contemporary Shamanic Healer
Thanks to Pam Sanders and Alison Carter for their editing, and to Dr. Pamela Peeke and Dr Rick Hanson for their work which has helped me access and understand the latest discoveries in neuroscience.
Allowing The Light