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The greatest present I gave myself on my birthday

The greatest present I gave myself on my birthday

Learning to be grateful freed me from the shame of self-destruction.

Age has helped me understand gratitude. It involves humility. Not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less.

As I sat down the other morning to prepare for the annual re-acceptance of my existence, on the occasion of my birthday, I realised that things have changed.  

I’m grateful for my life. This wasn’t always the case. Like most young people, I used to take being alive for granted. Another day. Another set of challenges. Another day of being with myself.

An uneasy relationship, which would later develop into addiction and a series of near-death episodes.  

Growing up, when someone advised (or rather, instructed me) to be grateful, it was really their way of telling me to be quiet and not to complain.

As an element of parenting, it was a way of chastising me for not appreciating what I had, or understanding its value.

I certainly had more than my parents had at my age. Both of them came from relatively poor families. 

How was I to feel grateful? What could they teach me? It felt like a divide between us. We had different values.

“You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” I would be told. Later, shame became endemic. 

In my days of active addiction, I would get a kick out of being censured for outrageous acts. It was a way of receiving attention, perhaps.   

To feel grateful for something requires an awareness of its value. This is often only apparent after its loss. Or perhaps a recognition that others may be deprived, and a twist of fate might mean the same for me. 

Nearly perishing in several road accidents did not deter or stop my destructive behaviour.  I put other people’s lives at risk as well. If I’d lost my life, how could I subsequently be grateful I had it? 

Somehow I found recovery from addiction. Family and friends played a major part in this. In recovery, gratitude is a central theme. We make lists of things we’re grateful for, when stuck.

This leads to acceptance, which is the answer to all my problems. It brings me peace. It quietens my mind. It allows me to see clearly and be myself.  

Age has helped me understand gratitude. It involves humility. Not thinking less of myself, but thinking of myself less. Not wanting or expecting more, thinking one deserves more.

A rightsizing of the ego. Real gratitude means that I want what I have, all the things, the relationships. Not have whatever I want, spending time and energy fixating on things I don’t need. I have what I need. 

Another trick is to realise that I can feel grateful for the little things. Salt. Air. A pillow. A shirt. I have what I need.

This takes me out of myself, even for a moment. It gives me perspective, realising the value of things. For that I’m grateful. 

On my birthday, loved ones gave me their time – something I used to take for granted. Time is the greatest gift. We don’t have much of it. Every day is special.

I’m grateful to be alive, just for today. And right now is all I really have.  

Sean O'Connor

Change expert, Sean O'Connor, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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