At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us. -- Albert Schweitzer
Gratitude is an emotion of connectedness, which reminds us we are part of a larger universe that we share with all living beings. We always have something to be grateful for. But often we are not fully aware of what that means. A more complete awareness of gratitude often comes like an awakening. But once it happens -- when you relax into that sea of gratitude and let it support you -- you become weightless and filled with joy.
This is what has happened in my relationship with my husband Michael. As I look back over the years, I can see how a sense of gratitude that was first rooted in our youthful infatuation has blossomed into something far more all-encompassing -- a feeling that I now experience every moment of my waking hours.
It was 1978 when I first saw Michael in a Landmark Education seminar in New York City. He stood across the crowded room in that faded dark purple sweater that I'll never forget. "The one," I still tease him, "you remember, the one with the hole at the left elbow." My thought at that moment was, "This guy needs a good woman, and he's really handsome, and besides, he is great 'raw' material. In time, I just know I can change him." In the long run, though, I am the one who has been changed by Michael.
When Michael and I were first getting to know each other, he took me to a health food store and walked me through the aisles, gently holding my hand, pointing out different foods, and educating me on the health benefits of eating organic fresh vegetables, grains, and vegetarian sources of protein (beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan). (Before we met, Michael had run a health food restaurant in New Paltz, N.Y.) His lessons were all news to me. As a child, ridiculous as it sounds now, I actually thought that peas and carrots came together in aluminum cans! But I was grateful for his willingness to teach me.
In the late 1970s, Michael and I spent hours gyrating beneath the glittery lights of the swirling disco ball at Philadelphia's hottest discotheque. We danced to the pulsating sounds of Evelyn Champagne King, Donna Summer, and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Dancing -- as well as mounds of big hair -- were all in vogue in the seventies. I relished every moment of that era and those experiences.
I knew I was grateful for all that -- for Michael's exhilarating presence, his intelligence and awareness, his grace and energy, and for the romance we shared together. Little did I realize, at that point, that the gratitude I felt was just a miniature form of what I would come to experience in the years ahead.
Life changes fast -- "in the blink of an eye." We had only been married for 18 months when I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Prior to that moment in 1980, I actually believed that I had the rest of my life to go dancing in high heels and red lipstick. It is said that the rites of passage are narrow, and that they come just once in a lifetime. I don't agree with that assertion. I believe that life is an ongoing journey and with each passage in life, we question, make mistakes, learn, create, expand, grow, transform, and celebrate each step of the way. Passages are like chapters of a book. The end of one chapter is also the beginning of another. What I didn't realize was that the new chapter, for me, would be an introduction to the true immensity of gratitude.
With my diagnosis, the life I had known began slipping away. Activities I enjoyed like dancing, walking the beach, and bicycling became bittersweet memories. True, Michael and I still dance, but slowly and not too often -- usually at weddings, high school reunions and bar mitzvahs. Michael lifts me up from my wheelchair, and we close our eyes and sway to the music. I sigh. He sighs, "Do you remember when we swayed like this -- my arms around you as we watched the sun set over the Sea of Galilee?" "Yes, honey," I said, my eyes glazing over with the memory, "I remember."
But this is just one moment -- and the gratitude I now experience is much more than single moments. My gratitude has become a sea. I do not have to feel like I'm having "a perfect day" or that everything is going "just right" in order to experience gratitude. What I feel grateful for is not something specific like warm apple pie, a new pair of jeans, or an unexpected gift. Instead my gratitude is something that envelops me. It is a feeling of thankfulness for everything that life has given me.
Yes, there is a lot that might have been more, better, or different. But right now, I am just grateful for what, and who, is in my life right now.
Try this experiment:
Think of something you are profoundly grateful for. It could be something you own that you treasure. It could be a nurturing and supportive relationship, or a pet, children or grandchildren you love very much. It could involve being grateful for something that could have happened, but didn't -- an accident from which you emerged unhurt. It's important that it be something deep and meaningful, because you're going to tap into that experience now. As you do that, experience the feeling of gratitude that comes over you. Now, take a deep breath and let those images go. See if you can expand that feeling beyond any single possession, person, or event to include all of life as you are experiencing it.
Gratitude can lead to feelings of love, appreciation, generosity, and compassion, which further open our hearts. I am extremely grateful to The Huffington Post, the staff and to my readers.
Have a blessed holiday season with your loved ones,
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Contact Linda as a life coach for practical counseling. Visit www.wheelchairwisdom.com for more information.
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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life around illness or any adversity and apply a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please find Linda's book, You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge on Amazon.com.
Linda Noble Topf is author of You Are Not Your Illness: Seven Principles for Meeting the Challenge, Simon & Schuster, 1995. Wheelchair Wisdom: Awaken Your Spirit Through Adversity, will be published in 2014 by Berrett-Koehler & iUniverse.