The Real Gift

brain anatomy    cross section
brain anatomy cross section

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

A brain tumor ranks near the top of the list of Life's Most Personally Devastating Events. Such a catastrophe is physically, emotionally and monetarily costly. Yet, vivacious Stacey Kramer describes the many gains she realized following the discovery of a tumor thriving on her brain in the TEDTalk, "The Best Gift I Ever Survived." Cost was not an issue on any level because the benefits Kramer catalogs lean toward the sort that no amount of money can buy: peace, love, serenity, humility, happiness, redefinition of faith, and more meaningful relationships with others. How does one arrive at this summation, to view and accept a brain tumor as a great gift?

We've observed individuals go through a wilderness journey similar to Kramer's but don't arrive at the same destination. They adopt a woe is me attitude and their gift list reads something like this: despair, broken spirit, anger, bitterness, depression, and doom. Under the same circumstances their cry becomes not "thank you," but "why me?" They become victims who assign blame to others for their circumstances and project their resulting anger onto doctors, loved ones, and the world in general.

She's no doubt one who sees the cup as overflowing rather than leaking from the bottom. -- Candace Deal

Then we're treated to a joyful Kramer, whose demeanor and straightforward words make it appear effortless to find good in one of life's most tragic blows. But I'm willing to bet that Kramer practiced gratitude on a regular basis long before the tumor arrived. She's no doubt one who sees the cup as overflowing rather than leaking from the bottom. Most successful and happy people do. Consider the words of Warren Buffett captured in a Wall Street Journal article, "The truth is, everything that has happened in my life... that I thought was a crushing event at the time, has turned out for the better."

Gratitude has long inspired the pens of philosophers. In one of the earliest recorded allusions to the emotion, Seneca, a Roman philosopher, statesman, and orator who lived from 4 BC-65 AD said, "Nothing is more honorable than a grateful heart." Epictetus, a Greek philosopher and sage who lived a little later, is credited with this gem, "He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those he has." Quotes about gratitude by great men and women can be tracked through the ages. Likewise, the theology of gratitude has been with up for a while. In fact, all the major religions of the world teach gratitude as an esteemed quality necessary to a life well lived.

Psychologists, lagging behind their peers in philosophy and theology, are just beginning to consider gratitude a worthy heuristic. Until recently, there has been little experiential research on the emotion, but Robert A. Emmons is blazing the trail in rectifying that. A Professor of Psychology at UC Davis, Emmons has studied gratitude for the past 20 years and recently published Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happy. Through controlled experiments, the psychologist, in collaboration with Professor Michael E. McCullough at the University of Miami, found that participants who kept gratitude journals on a regular basis exercised more, complained of fewer ailments and felt better about their lives as a whole when compared to a similar group who recorded their problems and life stressors. Other benefits for the keepers of gratitude journals included more progress toward important goals, better sleep and a greater willingness to lend emotional support to someone struggling with a personal problem.

Philosophers, theologians, and psychologists all refer to gratitude as an emotion, but I think there's much more at stake than simply emotion. Emotions are natural reactions to life events, usually unsummoned, and are as likely to be negative as positive. Gratitude is a discipline and any act of discipline requires practice. Gratitude is a choice we actively make, often a difficult choice during tough times. Max Lucado, a minister and inspirational author, believes that making gratitude our default emotion enables us to express gratitude for the problems of life. In psychologist Barbara Fredrickson's work with positivity, she discovered that cultivators of gratitude cope better with life calamities such as divorce, job loss, and serious health threats than those who fail to practice gratitude intentionally.

At the end of her TEDTalk, Kramer said that although a brain tumor was not a gift she would wish on her audience, she wouldn't change her experience if given the chance because of the profound ways it affected her life.

The hemangioblastoma tumor, which Kramer describes as the gift that keeps on giving, was not the real gift in this story. Kramer's real gift is the one of gratitude. The research says that gratitude keeps on giving because it creates a circuit by broadening our capacity to express love and kindness, which in turn helps foster lasting friendships. When we practice gratitude we want to promote the well-being of others.

After seeing and hearing Kramer's inspirational and amazing talk, my guess is that she would wish that that gift on us all.

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