Gratitude in Vulnerable Times
A lot of books have been written about gratitude. I think it is a well-received idea that gratitude is a nice thing to do. It is polite and people will like you better when you notice them and give thanks, and relationships will thrive with expression of gratitude. But I want to address the use of gratitude in our most vulnerable times, when it is not about being polite, nice or wanting to be liked.
When I was twenty years old, I almost died at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. I was a nursing student there at the time and developed septicemia (a widespread bacterial infection in my blood) from a mismanaged dental emergency from a small dentist in upstate NY while visiting with Barry. Once back at the University, my fever quickly soared to a dangerous 107 and I had to be packed in ice and was placed in the isolation ICU unit. The chief physician called my parents in Buffalo to tell them they must rush to my side as he believed I would die quickly.
But what was happening inside of me while all of this drama was unfolding? I was struggling to maintain consciousness. People around me were wondering out loud how long I might live, as if I couldn’t hear them. Somewhere in my brain that was barely functioning I decided that I would say and feel my gratitude to each person who tried to help me. For even the smallest thing that was done to me, and there were many small and big things, I said, “thank you for helping me.” Sometimes my voice was so weak that they had to lean in closer to my mouth to hear my words. Each time I said the words, “thank you,” I felt the connection to my soul and heart grow stronger. Saying “thank you” became my lifeline of strength. And in a large city hospital where people in crisis are more apt to be treated as a disease than a human being, my gratitude drew their attention back to the fact that indeed here was a human being inside this terrible medical crisis. The nurses, orderlies, doctors and even the janitors treated me with more kindness once they heard my weak words thanking them. There is much about that vulnerable time that I remember, but one thing that stands out is the feeling of strength that returned to me each time I thanked someone.
Another very vulnerable time for me was when our young family of five experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that totally destroyed our rental home with all five of us inside. Our son was only five months old at the time. Each one of us, especially our son, came very close to being killed. We were all in a state of shock as we looked at the house that had been our home for thirteen years and realized that we would never be able to live there again.
People began arriving at our home and helping in the most amazing ways. Someone sat me down and fed me some healthy food. Someone else washed the blood from our two little girl’s legs. Others found our dogs and cats, and still others rented a U-Haul truck and began packing up the few things that were not destroyed.
After a few hours of being totally taken care of, I realized I must contact my strength again. I began by thanking God for saving us from this disaster and allowing all five of us to survive. Remembering my experience in the hospital, I went to each precious person and held their hands and looked long into their eyes and expressed my gratitude. With each thank you my mother strength returned until I was ready to make the big changes that our family needed to survive.
Gratitude also brings strength and clarity in times of great stress. Twenty years ago, Barry and I were scheduled to do a couple’s retreat in Massachusetts. Since Barry’s mother lived in New York, we both decided he should go ahead a week early and visit with her. I would stay home, take care of our children, and join him in Massachusetts for the retreat. When I arrived at the airport, I was told that all flights with a stop in Chicago were cancelled for the weekend due to extreme weather. I was also told that there was no possible way I would make it to the east coast, and that I should go home.
Barry did not want to do the couple’s retreat without me since we had a very big group at the retreat. It felt so important that somehow I get myself to Massachusetts. I went to the gate and approached a very weary attendant. Many people had been yelling at her with frustration. I kindly looked her in the eyes and thanked her first for the difficult job she had that day, and then for trying to help me. She shook her head and said she couldn’t help me, but I thanked her again for trying.
There were three airports in the San Francisco Bay area and three in the New York City area. Surely I felt a way could be found. I was asking her to check out all of these possibilities. She started once again to tell me that it was impossible while all around me I could hear people yelling at the other attendants because they could not be helped. I kept my voice very calm and kept thanking her for each time she tried. Finally, on the last try, she found one seat from San Francisco to the Kennedy Airport. I thanked her in the biggest way I could and a bright smile crossed her face. Because of my expressions of gratitude, she had given me that little bit of extra attention.
Gratitude brings strength to the heart and allows us to contact the place within us that is wise and powerful, no matter how vulnerable or stressed we might feel. Everything might be falling apart around us, but in the expression of gratitude, first to God and then to whoever is helping, we will feel our strength return. Expressing gratitude is perhaps the most powerful way we can live.