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The prizegiving speech that taught me the meaning of gratitude

The prizegiving speech that taught me the meaning of gratitude

Life changes when you learn to be grateful for what you’ve got.

"Life changes when you learn to be grateful for what you’ve got."

Life changes when you learn to be grateful for what you’ve got

“You should be grateful”, said my mother. But I didn’t feel that way, not at all. I just felt confused.

Why was my 10-year-old self not feeling how he should’ve? Was there something wrong with me? 

Looking back, I understand that my parents were trying to help me see things differently, to shift my perspective. They didn’t like seeing me upset.

Parenting can be difficult. It’s hard to let children learn their own lessons and come around to their own perspective when as an adult you think you know better.

Maybe my parents, both of whom had very humble roots, had learnt that gratitude is a lens that can change the value of life, as if by magic.

So, can you do this – can you think your way into an emotion? Can you decide how you feel? I think so, now.  

Gratitude, an oft-deployed trick in the world of recovery from addiction, takes one’s mind off the things that have gone wrong, replacing guilt, woe and regret with something enchanting and full of potential.

Recovering addicts write a gratitude list to effect this change, developing the positive mindset required to rebuild their lives.

By doing so, they let go of the past and come to the present moment, where worries about the future seem to evaporate. Of course, this practice is not restricted, anyone can do it.  

My own gratitude towards my parents means that I understand they were just doing their best and were no less flawed than I am. It’s only now as an adult that I can feel my way into an idea of how they parented me, and what they must have made of me.

I have often thought about those early times when things were often so emotional, so fraught, punctuated by a sense that I was out of sync with what I ought to be experiencing emotionally. I struggled to reconcile this, and sometimes still do.

For example, being told, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Should I? It felt like I had a dirty secret that things weren’t quite what they were supposed to be because I felt no shame whatsoever.

And in this spectrum of dislocated emotions, nothing befuddled me more than gratitude. I didn’t know how to feel it. It wasn’t something I could manufacture. 

I’m guessing one has to experience the loss of something to feel grateful for its presence, be it love or life or your savings or half a loaf of bread.

It is said that we are motivated more by not losing something than by gaining it, that not losing a hundred bucks, for example, inspires more energy than making the same amount.

Whether I have it or not isn’t important, but it’s galling to lose something. Perhaps that’s why people who have known real hardship, be it material or spiritual or emotional, can appreciate what they have all the more. 

Strictly middle-class and aspirational is how I would describe my upbringing. My parents were another story. Because they came from hardship and worked so hard, it wasn’t easy for them to find a balance.

Perhaps there was too much comfort in what they provided, comfort that inoculated me from real, deep gratitude, the kind that humbles and transforms you.

I’ve only learnt to practice – and it has taken a lot of practice – an attitude of gratitude in adulthood. Losing friends, losing a parent. Losing a marriage, and finding another type of relationship with my ex, as a caring co-parent.

I remind myself that with every change, something is lost, and something else is gained. Acknowledge the loss, focus on the gain.

The sense that my children are growing up and away from me inclines me to be grateful for their presence right now because I know that their absence will hurt.

I’m scared to be on my own, but happy that they will be able to feel how wonderful it is to be young and free in the world, and to make their own way. 

I was thinking about this at my daughter’s prizegiving. The principal’s short speech described a picture of someone born in 1900, who witnessed the First World War, then survived the Spanish Flu, then the Great Depression, the Second World War, nuclear proliferation and the Cold War, and so on.

It put things into perspective. We would survive, he said. We had a lot to be grateful for. Let us look to what we have, rather than what we have lost, in this time where we have all lost someone or something, be it work, relationships, or prospects.

It felt like the right thing for a leader or a parent to say. To acknowledge and take a moment for the loss, before looking up and enumerating everything we still had, starting with our very breath. Personally, I can say I am grateful to have never been in a war.

The other thing I am aware of is my mobility, my speech, my hearing, faculties that are now all in decline, but so vital to me. I cannot take them for granted any longer. 

At the prizegiving, a young boy gave a violin recital. It instantly transported me to the forested hills of British Columbia in western Canada, to the hamlet of Argenta, only reached by boat across Kootenay Lake.

I remembered the square dance I attended there, many years ago. I smiled inwardly because I thought, “Well, what a life I’ve had! I’m grateful for it. I have lived.”

And although I find myself sitting masked and anonymous at the back of a large hall, and haven’t had work for months, and am about to move out of my home, and will lose daily life with my children, I have had it all, and have everything I need. It’s just taken me some time to figure it out. 

Yes, reason can influence emotion. I can decide to be happy, just by paying attention to what I have right now. Wouldn’t it be awful if the sun went down on this short life while I had a scowl on my face?

Sean O'Connor

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

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