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Creating an honest path to gratitude

I haven’t always known how to feel grateful or identify the feeling of joy. There are certain lessons in life only learned through experience. No matter how many books are read or classes taken, hard-fought living is our one true teacher. In this season of gratitude, I’m reminded that my ability to feel thankful and happy is a recent revelation. I’ve also realized that through loss, a person can gain everything.

Several years ago, I read a book by John Kralik called A Simple Act of Gratitude. At middle age, Kralik found himself at the lowest of lows. His law firm was failing; he was struggling through a second divorce; he was overweight; his two older children had grown distant, and he worried about losing contact with his young daughter. He lived in a tiny apartment where he froze in the winter and baked in the summer. Then one New Year’s Day, alone on a hike, he had an epiphany. Perhaps if he focused on what he had instead of what he didn’t have, he could find some peace.

Starting that day and for an entire year, he wrote a daily thank you note, culminating into 365 notes total. Whether it was family, friends, a handyman or the Starbucks barista, he thanked hundreds of people who’d helped him in any way, big or small. Immediately, surprising results ensued. He felt more confident, lighter in his step. He resurrected connections and relationships that had all but disappeared. He even found professional and financial success during this pivotal year. 

With Kralik’s every fiber focused on the good, as opposed to the bad, his life turned around. This book inspired me, but once I turned the last page, I put it in a nightstand drawer and moved on. At the time, my life was pretty comfortable. Both my parents were healthy. I had two beautiful little boys, and I was working from home as a freelance writer so I had freedom to be the type of mom I’d envisioned. My marriage was on cruise control … sort of. In retrospect, there were issues then but everything else in my life was going so well, the marital discord seemed rather insignificant. Life felt busy and full. 

Shortly thereafter, my mom received the news that she had cancer and a relatively short time later, passed away. Then one year after that, my ex-husband and I separated which meant the loss of the precious family unit. Life felt dark and sad, like there was no way I would ever feel happy again. 

I’m not one who can wallow forever in my sorrows. I needed to take action to feel better, so I started intentionally focusing on the simplest of pleasures. A perfect cup of coffee, a genuine conversation, an authentic laugh, a good book, a delicious meal, playing outside with my boys, and so on. I would consciously turn off the world around me and put every ounce of energy into these small moments. My perception began to rotate and I started feeling grateful for what I had instead of heartbroken for what I’d lost. 

Over time, this went from an intentional act to a habit to a way of life. Then one morning I read something that said, “An ongoing problem is like a tutor who is always by your side. The learning possibilities are limited only by your willingness to be teachable.”

The “problem” was my constant grief, an ominous cloud that loomed and sucked the life out of me. Once I started viewing this problem as a gift and a teacher, I gained so much in the way of experiencing true gratitude. 

Now, two years later, I am in a new relationship, one that’s fulfilling, genuine and fun. My boys are adjusting and adapting to our new normal. Their dad and I co-parent well and amicably. My work and colleagues offer significant joy and witty reprieve. I’m blessed to have true friends and a family I love very much. 

People have recently said things to me such as, “Looks like everything is falling into place” or “You seem so happy” or “I’m glad your life has turned around.” I smile and nod at them, but the thing is, there’s been no cataclysmic event that’s all of a sudden made me a giddy person. I will never have my mom back or be able to give my boys the family unit they once had. I’m not expecting to ever feel a superficial type of happiness where all the chess pieces line up just right. 

No, it’s not what’s happening to me that’s making me joyful these days. It’s a shift in my own thinking and a hard-earned ability to be thankful for the good stuff. My life is messy and chaotic. But it’s my life. My one and only beautiful life. And as 2019 sits on the horizon, I feel energized and excited. Beginnings always refresh the soul. As we ring in the new year, here’s to the ability to find good in the bad and joy in the sorrow. Believe me, once you figure out how to do this, things start looking up. 

(Susanna Barbee is an editor, writer and social media specialist for Mountain South Media, Smoky Mountain Living magazine and The Smoky Mountain News. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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