So in keeping with the season, I have been busily coming up with ways to help my kids and the young women I lead to have an attitude of gratitude. Today after shopping for a function designed to help increase the sense of gratitude of our Young Women, I found myself in the most windswept tundra of them all, the grocery store parking lot. Is there anything more cold, windy or desolate then a grocery store parking lot?
As I pushed my laden trolley (shopping cart- I am feeling a pull back to my mother tongue), across the lot towards my car my inner monologue went something like this.
Areyoukiddingmewithhowfreakingcold itis.ImeanareyouFORREAL?????I JUST BIT MY LIP FROM SHIVERING SO HARD. GAAAAAH!!!!!!! (or g-g-g-g-g-g-g-GAAAAAAAH)
Then it moved onto:
"Great, now I have to move all these bags into the house by myself in the freezing cold and they will most probably split open all over the street, because I forgot my canvas ones and got paper ones so at least the bunny could use them but the paper ones are useless and look that one is already breaking. Well of course it is. Because the world hates me when it is winter. In fact I think winter is a conspiracy against me...."
Then a man walked by me. I am not sure what it was about him that caught my eye. Maybe he walked with a limp, or there was a stoop in his shoulders. I noticed he had no groceries. There was something about him which looked downtrodden.
Suddenly my mind was filled with the image of a man I had seen at the post-office last week. He was very old and toothless. He was tiny and hunched over. He did not seem capable of speech. He was holding a package by the door and he was looking at people as they approached in a desperate way, cocking his head. He had the exact mannerisms of a little dog or a cat, waiting to be let in or out of the house. I got to the door and opened it, standing back for him, and without looking up at me, he scurried inside. I realized then that he could not hold the package and open the door, even though the package was very small. Perhaps he could not open the door at all. After my package was safely on its way, I saw him standing at the door again, I held it open and asked him if he needed help out. He looked at me blankly. I repeated myself. A woman behind me said, "I think he wants to stay inside where it is warm". The whole experience was incredibly humbling for me. As I sat in my car in the post office parking lot, I realized how much I take for granted as I rush through life. I can open a door, I can drive a vehicle. I can run around painlessly all day with no thought for how my body is doing it. I don't have to rely on other people to help me in out of the cold. I have a mind that not only functions well enough for me to be independent, but one that can reason, remember, be inspired, entertained and creative. I have a family and friends who will never allow me to be left in the cold literally, or figuratively.
I am reminded of an experience I had a couple of years ago around this time, as I stood behind an elderly mother and her adult son checking out at the grocery store. It was a bleak day and it was Aldi's so it was bleak inside too. I remember them having very few items. One of them was a brick of cheese. I remember hearing them discussing Christmas, about decorating, sounding excited. I remember his torn, dirty coat, her careworn face. You could tell life had not been easy for either one of them, but it was the holidays and they seemed pretty upbeat as they made their modest plans.
As I was loading my groceries on the belt I realized progress ahead of me had stopped. The cashier was explaining, not unkindly, that they were short of money. They looked helpless and started to sort through their meager groceries, putting some things back. Time stood still, people shifted behind me impatiently. I suddenly snapped out of my trance and told the cashier to add their purchases to my tab. They were embarrassingly grateful, I was probably too upset to be very gracious, and they eventually moved on.
I stared hard at the contents of my cart and faked a cough to hide the fact that I was crying. I felt such a sense of hopelessness for them. I felt bad that they'd been publicly humiliated,I felt an almost painful empathy for them. I had not been in that situation, but I easily could have been at many different stages of my life. I felt frustrated at the world. I took no satisfaction in the fact that I had been in the position to help. I sat in the parking lot at Aldis feeling crushed and desperate, knowing I was surrounded in my own small town by desperate need that seemingly nobody saw. Feeling as though my life was wasted if I did not fix everything for everyone. And helpless knowing that I could not.
I spiraled in a depression for weeks after, focusing on the unbelievable amount of need in the world which no-one was addressing. No holiday event was complete without me calculating how many people could have been fed in Africa with the money that was spent on that hot chocolate. How many pairs of shoes or bricks of cheese could have been provided to a destitute family just over the tracks, in our own town, instead of that lavish cookie spread at a community event. Yeah, I was the life of the party alright. People were loving being around me.
One day I announced to my husband that we needed to pack up everyone and go to work for the Peace Corp in Africa. My husband gently pointed out that in our current state of life we would only be adding to the problem. He suggested that I focus on raising my family to be compassionate, intelligent, capable and focused on helping others. I slowly understood the truth and logic to what he was saying. In that state of mind, I was neglecting the very people I had been charged to care for and nurture at this time. The very people who I was sent to help. I was neglecting my personal mission of service. I was creating poverty in spirit at home.
Ingratitude wears many disguises. The first scenario I described is one of the more obvious-I was focused on myself and my own discomfort. The second is less obvious but just as damning. I was focused on all that was wrong and lacking for so many less fortunate then me. In both cases I was so focused on what was missing, what was out of place, that there was no space to see what was right, what was good, what was whole and beautiful and blessed.
At times like these, when the world seems more troubled then ever, it can almost seem insensitive to be too upbeat. These are hard times for many people and we may feel as though we should keep our good cheer in check. Perhaps we feel as though we are not serious minded enough if we are not focused on the bad news, discussing the dire situation in the economy, the lack of ethics, morality and kindness in the world. The horrible weather.
But does it serve anyone really to add to the gloom? Is the world not looking for a little chink of light wherever it can be found? I'm pretty confident the answer to that question is yes. Optimists, happy, grateful people are a balm to my soul. We are all drawn to them like moths to flame. And really, there is nothing stopping any of us from being one of those people. Grateful people are happy regardless of their circumstances. Indeed the worse things get, the more sunny they seem sometimes. For some individuals it comes more naturally. Perhaps they did some practising in the pre-existence. But optimism and gratitude can also be a learned behaviour, acquired through diligent practise.
After seeing that man pass by in the parking lot today with his accompanying memory triggers, I decided to play a little game right there as I stood on that windswept tundra.
I am grateful I am c-c-cold because:
It means I am healthy enough to be out shopping for my family.
It makes me aware of my body and the blessing of being alive and able to feel.
It makes my old warm van seem incredibly luxurious
I am grateful to be dragging all the breaking bags around in the cold because:
It means I am blessed to have the means to buy what is is bursting those bags
It means that I am blessed to have people in my life to share meals with
It means that I have a cute bunny at home who will enjoy those paper bags.
I am grateful for my grubby house because
I have shelter from the cold. Nothing like winter to take your breath away with gratitude for shelter from the cold.
It is filled with healthy, active children to make it grubby
It is grubby because my life is full of fun activities which keep me from doing nothing but cleaning all day.
Cleaning is an easy way to feel like you have accomplished something.
And a bonus: when the sun doesn't shine, the dirt is far less noticeable.
I am committed to playing this game, 'til the end of the month at least. Perhaps it will become habit by then. The moment I started playing it today my mood improved infinitely. I may have even felt a fraction warmer. It was so much fun that I started looking for more irritating things to be grateful for. It was so much more pleasant then the negative domino effect that generally starts after any tundra freezing experience and ends with an hysterical call to my husband about why do we still live in this hole?.
"A grateful heart is a beginning of greatness. It is an expression of humility. It is a foundation for the development of such virtues as prayer, faith, courage, contentment, happiness, love, and well-being. But there is a truism associated with all types of human strength: “Use it or lose it.” When not used, muscles weaken, skills deteriorate, and faith disappears".-Elder James E. Faust