Prior to 2014, I was certain I’d come to understand gratitude. I got my first taste of heart-wrenching understanding while floating somberly through the Mekong Delta, watching families methodically pick garbage out of the river to patch the floating shambles they called their homes. A few years later, those same heart strings were tugged even harder by the filthy, barefoot children I met in a small village somewhere in rural Maharashtra, whose tongue-twisting name and exact location I’ve now forgotten. But what I will never forget is how very eye-opening and life-changing both experiences were for me. In both instances, I experienced a gratitude that I was never able to fully articulate. In hindsight, it’s because I did not fully understand it yet. These people were living lives that were more difficult than anything I could’ve ever imagined, but they were doing it gracefully, peacefully, and happily. In the simplest way I can put it, they made me realize just how good I’ve had it and just how grateful I should be. And I’ll never forget it.
In my middle-class western upbringing, I was always taught to have gratitude for the things I have, to be grateful for my privileges and opportunities, and to find empathy and compassion for those who have less than I do. If your upbringing was anything like mine, you were told to finish your dinner because “there are starving children in Africa.” Now as adults we try to volunteer at soup kitchens and write checks to charities and donate toys to children who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to open on Christmas. It seems that more and more, there is a growing movement to give what we can and to be grateful for what we have. And it’s WONDERFUL. I’m so thankful for an evolving culture that has set me on this path, and even more thankful for my unique experiences that have permanently engrained these sentiments in my heart. But in the past year, I believe I’ve developed a much deeper understanding of gratitude.
Last January, Austin experienced what could’ve been a tragically life-altering accident. But it wasn’t. Three fingers were ripped from his dominant hand, more gruesomely than I’d care to describe. The magnitude of this injury is still incomprehensible to me, but his response to it has been nothing short of enlightening. He kept his head up and powered through an excruciating recovery, never once adopting the victim mentality that is so common in our culture. Not one time did he mutter, “Why me?” There were no pity parties. I never even saw him shed a tear. He was not beat down. He did not give up on his goals, intentions or dreams. He didn’t give up on a career that required the full use of both hands, or an intention to build a home by hand. Instead, he adjusted. I stood by in awe as my 30-year old man painstakingly retrained his non-dominant hand, and simply (determinately) carried on.
For the third time in my life, I recognized that indescribable gratitude, but this time it was even more difficult to nail down. It was extremely reminiscent of what I thought I’d learned already. But it was not a gratitude rooted in what someone had or didn’t have as I’d thought I’d found in my eastern travels. This time, it was different. But I knew it was connected to what I’d previously found, and perhaps even explained it. Slowly, as my man’s hand healed, I realized just exactly how connected these experiences were. They were actually exactly the same – what was different was simply my own understanding. It’s not just about the privileges or opportunities that we are given in our lives, or the things we’re able to buy or that are provided to us. It stems from something much deeper: how we respond to challenges, adversity, and even tragedy. Austin demonstrated resilience like I’ve never seen first-hand, and I realized that this, in itself, is an incredible expression of gratitude. His optimism and determination made me realize how often we culturally do just the opposite in much less trying circumstances. We complain, find excuses, play the victim, or give up. It’s so easy. But to be able to look inside yourself and find the type of strength he displayed HAS to be founded in pure gratitude for the life you have. Now, looking back at the families in the Mekong, I realize that this explains how they greeted a somber foreigner with beaming smiles and offered to share with me cool drinks and spots of shade. I understand the women in rural Maharashtra who proudly invited me into their homes to share a sparse meal seated on a cow-dung floor. I finally get why I got it! These people taught me gratitude not because of the things they were lacking, but because of the incredible strength and compassion they demonstrated in their every day lives. They were not victims. They did not complain. They were not envious nor did they view life as unfair. Instead, they overcame extreme adversity all day, every day. I was simply blind to how this works because I hadn’t had to overcome such extreme challenges in my own life. I mistook my feelings of pity for what I believed was gratitude. I was blinded by my own misunderstanding that experiencing gratitude was simply acknowledging that I have more than others.
So, 2014. Gratitude. Where was I going with this? I’m RAMBLING. 2014 has truly been a year of learning a whole new depth of gratitude. Since January, Austin and I have moved into a tiny cabin we’re building in the mountains, with the end-goal of establishing a self-sufficient off-grid homestead together. In the days since my “gratitude epiphany,” if you will, I’ve gradually identified this concept as a major driving force behind my decision to take on this life-project with my soulmate. It’s funny how sometimes you find yourself so completely motivated to do something before you fully understand why. But it’s like this concept had been seeping into every aspect of my life, secretly and silently without me knowing it, and slowly making itself known. We’re living a kind of hard life right now. Everything is difficult. Nothing goes as planned. We’re coming up on 5 months without running water. We’ve got to bundle up and brave subzero temperatures to go outside and use our composting toilet. If the wood stove goes out while we’re sleeping, we wake up freezing. The weather dictates our construction progress. And we still have to show up, in a respectable manner, at our corporate jobs for at least 40 hours a week while we attempt to blend in with civilization. This is where that new understanding of gratitude comes into play.
It’s in no way comparable to an accident that rips your body apart, or to laying your children to sleep on the floor of a leaky trash barge, but we’re constantly facing challenges. Some of them self-made, some of them beyond our control. Nothing is easy, but it’s all so good. They say adversity builds character, but I’m finding it goes beyond that. Way beyond that. Adversity inspires gratitude. A really, really deep gratitude. I’m so grateful to be not only be living a wildly weird, intentional and inspirational life with the man of my dreams, but to also have been able to identify this shift in my thinking. Perhaps I’ve found my “big WHY.” Or perhaps this is just the tip of the iceberg. To be honest, no matter what trials and tribulations may lay ahead, I’m hoping it’s the latter. If this is just the beginning of fully understanding gratitude, I say… bring it.
To all my loves, thank you. Thank you for reading this. Thank you for everything. Thank you for loving us. Thank you for your support and thank your for your understanding. Happy New Year. Be well, be wild, be grateful, and be free. Stay your course. Amazing things lie ahead. <3