Gratitude, Sickness, & Pretzel Bun Sandwiches
I kind of feel as if I’m not the right person to be writing about gratitude. Six years ago when I was lying morosely in bed one morning before work—my body sick with prescription drug withdrawal, my optimism and most of my emotions mummified by whatever tweaks and damages years of antianxiety pills had wreaked upon my serotonin and GABA delivery systems—my wife asked me to tell her something good about my life (or just about life in general). I couldn’t.
“Just tell me three things you’re looking forward to today,” she said. “Or three things you’re grateful for.”
I continued to stare at the bedroom ceiling, lost in my own misery and confused by my wife’s question; maybe even a little indignant.
“I can’t,” I pleaded. “I just can’t think of anything good.”
My wife slapped at my arm, signaling that my answer was unacceptable.
“Listen,” she said. “The people don’t always have a lot where I come from (an area of Argentina that isn’t too far from some extreme rural poverty). But they manage to find their little happiness in the day. It might only be because of a piece of candy or a soda that someone gives them, but they find their little happiness.”
Little happiness. That was a new one for me in some ways. I guess I was always looking for big happiness. Huge happiness. Extreme and ostentatious happiness. Bottom line: I guess I wasn’t too practiced at practicing gratitude.
Now, in my defense I was dealing with some pretty heavy stress and sickness at the time I gave my wife that lame answer. After nearly a decade and a half of daily SSRI and benzodiazepine use, I’d quit those “antianxiety” medications and had subsequently been consumed by the modern mystery illness known as prescription drug withdrawal. I couldn’t sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom properly for many months, and I would be afflicted by many strange physical and mental symptoms for years to come. My fatigue level was consistently that of an elderly man left in the midday sun without water or shade, and the world simply looked black to me because I was in a lot of pain.
So there; I thought I had a decent excuse for my answer. I thought I had a decent excuse for why I couldn’t make a gratitude list that day. However, I slowly realized that there is no decent excuse. Why? Because being thankful and recognizing blessings is a necessary part of well-being, both in health and in sickness. It is a part of enjoying the high times, and it is a part of healing during the down times.
That day of my wife’s question marked a certain shift in my attitude toward gratitude. I began to realize, little by little, that happiness didn’t have to be towering for us to find it and latch onto it. Our troubles didn’t have to be absent before we could be grateful and even content or joyful.
For example, if we are struggling with sickness, we don’t have to be 100 percent cleared of our symptoms before we can find a little satisfaction in the day. And if we can find five minutes of relaxation or satisfaction in the day, then perhaps tomorrow will bring five more and so on. And as we are finding little moments of positive distraction, we are healing.
And if we don’t like our jobs, we don’t have to wait until we are retired to “like” our life. Each day—even the most stressful—comes with an evening that can be used to cook or read or to have a drink on the porch. And while we are cooking or reading or having that drink, we will remember that each day brings moments to be grateful for, and just maybe we will find the inspiration we need to find a professional calling that truly fulfills us.
And if paying the bills is a month-to-month struggle for us, we don’t have to wait until we hit the lottery to have fun and a little laughter in life. Most of the best things in life truly are free (that isn’t just a cliché), and among those things are: friendship, love, physical fitness, God, and creativity. The rich have no monopoly on contentment.
The bottom line is that we all have so many things to be grateful for, even as we are dealing with whatever messes and dramas and sicknesses we are dealing with in this life. And the sooner we make it a weekly (and hopefully daily) habit to list our blessings, either on paper or in our minds or in prayer, then the sooner we will find our little pieces of happiness on a regular basis.
As country music icon Willie Nelson once said, “When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
Over the course of the past several years I’ve become a regular runner. Although I couldn’t even run a half mile in the not too distant past, I was always athletic growing up, and so I decided that I needed to get back to those athletic roots in order to find better health and happiness in my adult life. A half mile turned into a mile, and then a 5K, and then a 10K, and then a weekly habit of fifteen to thirty miles.
So the other day I was going for my weekly “long” run (long for me usually meaning between eight and ten miles), and during the course of that run I stumbled upon a troubling emotion that is the antithesis of gratitude and happiness: envy. Sometimes on my longer runs I might drive to nature trails to exercise through fields and forests, but on this particularly sunny day I was jogging through city blocks and suburban sights. And some of those suburban sights were lakefront and oh so wealthy!
Listening to the spiritual sounds of the Japanese DJ Nujabes on my MP3 player, I found myself gawking as I ran past several-million-dollar brick home after several-million-dollar brick home. These residences had sprawling lawns and sailboats and tennis courts and Mexicans tending to the roofs and yards. These people had the sort of Big Happiness that everyone dreams of—the sort that, let’s be honest, most people, even in America, will never touch—and for a moment I found myself getting angry or disappointed because I didn’t have that Big Ostentatious Happiness for myself. Even as I felt the soothing rays of sunshine massage my bare shoulders, and even as I felt the endorphins begin to lift and stir my soul, I felt a blinding moment of dissatisfaction.
Would I ever experience that sort of life, I wondered, the sort that sits behind 20-foot high windows and docks a boat off the back deck?
I felt angry, but I also felt ashamed. I felt ashamed because even though my ability to practice gratitude had seemingly come so far since those days of “I can’t think of anything good in life,” here I was still thinking “I don’t have enough in life.”
Here I was defining happiness as “Something That I Don’t Have,” and I know that is a fool’s game. I know for a fact that is a game that keeps people sick. So I continued jogging, thinking about the people who lived in those palatial homes.
For the most part, no one seemed to be at home enjoying those three-million dollar views, and no one was in the sprawling yards soaking up the priceless sunshine that we were being blessed with that day. While admittedly I didn’t know exactly where those people were, I guessed they might be sitting in mind-numbing meetings at jobs that kept them stressed, or perhaps sitting at yet another doctor’s appointment trying to discern the cause of their headaches or stiffness or general unease. Who’s to say their lives were any better than mine, and taken a step further, why should I be thinking about their lives at all (besides the fact that I’m a writer)?
Yes, I’m just a self-employed writer; I’m not a rich man, but I’m a man with the freedom and the physical ability (i.e., good health) to run wherever I please at 3:00 p.m. on a sunny Monday afternoon. And after that, I can swim in the lake and then cook a great dinner (okay, maybe a pizza with a salad) and watch a movie with my wife and my 17-year-old calico cat, Benjie. I can sleep well at night (usually). And in the morning, I can have a decent breakfast, connect with God through devotions, and get to work on projects that mean something to me.
Those things are the “little” pieces of happiness, and they are everything. They make a person truly rich.
At the beginning of this post I warned you that I might not be the best person to write about gratitude, but I guess I don’t really believe that. While admittedly I’m someone who still catches himself thinking I want X, Y, and Z to happen in my life before I’ll be truly happy, I think that most everyone on Earth is subject to that sort of thinking from time to time. I still dream of great things for the future, but I no longer believe that happiness is something that resides in the future. And I no longer take things like good health, daily fulfillment, and faith for granted. I guess that is the first step toward truly practicing real gratitude—finding your little pieces of daily happiness and counting your blessings as you do so.
As I said earlier, not that long ago I was sick. I had no appetite, I had no energy, and I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t think clearly or exercise much or experience a nice laugh. My body was in constant pain and my mind was longing for peace. And then, as I healed and got stronger, I began to realize how good “normal” felt. I am now grateful for normal. At least that is one of the things I’m grateful for.
What are you grateful for today? Your eyes or ears or legs or arms? Your children or spouse or pets? The freedom of speech and worship we have in this great country, the country that has a library and a church on every corner? The support of a friend? The fact that God has given you a dream for the future? The fact that you don’t have to worry where your next meal is coming from or where you’ll spend the night?
I’d like to finish this post by talking about a man named Edward, (or Jessie, depending on which he is using at the time). I bring Edward sandwiches and cold bottles of water every so often, because he lives on the streets. At least during his waking hours. To this day I’m not exactly sure where he spends his nights, but I know that most of Edward’s daytime hours are spent sitting (or reclining) on a retaining wall on a frontage road beside one of the busiest stretches of highway in Madison, WI.
Edward is a black man, maybe in his sixties. He usually wears a weathered derby cap over his thinning hair; he always wears a tattered overcoat, rain or shine; and he always has a thousand-pound backpack with him. Sometimes when I talk to Edward I peek inside of that dirty backpack as it sits open on the retaining wall: it’s stuffed with notepads, books, a CD player, and who knows what else.
Edward spends his days listening to his CDs, reading his books, occasionally conversing with himself, occasionally drinking some tallboys of Milwaukee’s Best Ice, and guess what else? Writing.
I used to live a few blocks away from that frontage road where Edward spends his days, and so I began brining him leftover pizza and a few bucks from time to time. I moved away from Madison a few years ago, but I’ve still gotten back semi-regularly over the course of the years, and so I still see him occasionally. Edward recognizes my car when I pull into the empty parking lot by his retaining wall, and he’s always happy to see me, and to accept the grilled chicken breast sandwiches on pretzel buns that I make for both of us.
The last time I saw Edward (just a couple of weeks ago), he was excited because he had some writing to show me, a short story he’d been working on. As much as he might enjoy any snacks or dollars I bring him, he enjoys talking even more; he enjoys the five minutes of human connection. I’m not sure if Edward ever had a wife or children or a best friend, but I know that he now spends most of the day in solitude.
The more I talked with Edward over the years, the more he began to open up; the more he told me about his past life, the one, he says, where he was a professional writer with an agent and some money (before “some things happened’).
So the other day Edward showed me the beginnings of a short story in one of his notebooks, and as I looked at it he told me he’d have more writing to share the next time I stopped by. And then he asked, as he always does, how I was doing. What had I been up to over the winter? Had I traveled anywhere?
I told Edward about how I’d traveled to Miami for a bit, and about how, upon returning to Wisconsin, I’d often driven my wife (now a student again) to her school campus during the frequent snowstorms of 2019. And then I asked how he’d gotten by during the bitter winter.
“Well, I almost got frostbite; almost got stranded out there in a bad storm,” he said.
“You mean you don’t have somewhere regular you stay at night?” I asked.
“Yeah, but there was a little problem with the arrangement. But I got it straightened out,” he said, seemingly eager to change the subject. “Hey, you got another one of those devotional books you wrote? Something happened with the other one you gave me. If you got another one that would be good.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll bring one next time I come by.”
As my wife and I waved goodbye to Edward and got back onto the highway, a hint of sadness hung in the air. Obviously one can’t help but wonder about Edward’s history, about what those “things that happened” were. But there was also a feeling of peace in the air, because I felt lifted up by our interaction, as I always do. My interactions with him make me grateful for what I have in my life, because a couple of slight turns and any one of us could be Edward, I think. And his gratitude is an uplifting example, too. Edward has never asked me (or from what I can tell anyone else) for a dime. But he’s always grateful for the chicken sandwiches and snack bags and bottled water. And especially for the short conversations.
And he finds his little pieces of happiness in the day. He isn’t yelling or complaining or giving up on breathing. Whether his happiness is found listening to a CD, reading a good book, working on a new piece of writing, or enjoying a tallboy of beer, he finds it.
No matter how this past year has been for you—whether it’s been the best of your life or the most challenging—I urge you to take a moment today and every day to count your blessings, be grateful, and find your little pieces of happiness. Because when we do that, the wealth we already have becomes apparent, and the future begins to look a lot brighter.
MICHAEL PRIEBE is is a writer and personal development coach who has studied psychology, literature, and print journalism. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he graduated with honors, and over the years he has used both fiction and nonfiction formats to comment on politics, sports, relationships, health, and spiritual issues. In 2017 he released a workday devotional, The Lovely Grind: Spiritual Inspiration for Workdays (ORDER HERE), and he currently blogs about a variety of topics at Michaelpriebewriter.com and Lovelygrind.com. You can get his monthly inspirational newsletter by signing up for his mailing list here, and you can enjoy all of his YouTube videos here.
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