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In the mid 1980s my wife, two young daughters and I lived in a poor urban neighborhood on the outskirts of Quito, Ecuador. While running water and electricity were erratic, trash pickup took place every day save Sunday. As was customary each day for all of us in the neighborhood, one spring morning I placed our small container of garbage on the sidewalk just outside the front door. Just as I was turning to go back inside, I could see an elderly indigenous woman approaching with a scruffy, malnourished dog a step or two behind her. She was dressed traditionally in many layers of skirts, a colorful (if very worn) top and brown bowler hat. Before I could say "good morning" to her she nodded, reached for the garbage pail and began to search through it. I froze for a second, trying to find the right words: "Senora, please stop! We have food inside." "Do you need money?" I was quite sure she was Quechua speaking, but Spanish was the best I could do. Before a single word made its way to my lips she had found part of a chicken carcass (skin, grizzle and a tiny bit of meat still attached) and put it in the plastic bag tied to her belt. I still had no words. For her part, she looked up at me with a small smile to counterbalance her sad eyes and quietly said, "Le agradezco, Senor." (Thank you, sir) and moved on to the next household. I never saw her again, but I know for certain more light filled that spring morning than I could have ever imagined.
Why would she ever thank me? Given that she surely had almost nothing to her name, conventional thought would say that she had every right to be callous and bitter. How did she find it in herself to express words of gratitude?! How do any of us?
It appears that gratitude is neither proportionate to, nor does it have much to do with, abundance (or scarcity). We only need to look to people we've known from different cultures and economic classes who have an eternal disposition towards gratefulness. They are happier and more balanced than most -- much more so than those for whom gratitude is an infrequent visitor. The former bring more light into the world; the latter (entitled, easily offended people) obscure the light. Gratitude isn't just a temporary positive emotion that surfaces after the rain holds off for the wedding; the MRI shows nothing of concern; the hurricane goes out to sea; tiny traces of food are found on a few chicken bones. It's a mindset, a conscious decision to practice gratefulness until it becomes part of who we are; to look for what's right, not just what's wrong; to have a sense of wonder and see the beauty in and around us.
Studies have shown that gratitude impacts our physical and emotional health. In an article for WebMD by Elizabeth Heubeck entitled "Boost Your Health With a Dose of Gratitude," she notes if you want to get healthier, give thanks. The author's research showed that:
-- "Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations." (University of California Davis psychology professor, Robert Emmons)
-- "Feelings of thankfulness have tremendous positive value in helping people cope with daily problems, especially stress." (Emmons)
-- Grateful people tend to be more optimistic, a characteristic that researchers say boosts the immune system. "There are some very interesting studies linking optimism to better immune function," says Lisa Aspinwall, PhD.
For thousands of years philosophers and religious leaders across many cultural and denominational traditions have been acclaiming the individual and collective benefits of gratitude. Over 700 years ago the Dominican Friar and mystic, Meister Eckhart said it simply and straightforwardly: "If the only prayer you say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." Contemporary American author Melody Beattie spoke of it with more detail: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity... It turns problems into gifts, failures into success, the unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow."
What are we grateful for today? Einstein said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." Somehow, the poor indigenous woman who came by that morning could still see the miracle. She helped me to do the same.
Robert Short is executive coordinator of Maryknoll Affiliates and former director of mission for Youville Assisted Living.