We know this about life: the hardest experiences often lead to the most growth and learning.
Of course, we can grow and learn through joy and positive experience.
But, for whatever reason, the hard things lead us into a depth of love and resilience and self-discovery that no human in his or her right mind would actively volunteer to venture.
Could you imagine?
Yes, please, pick me for a loved one dying slowly after months of treatment or I can’t wait to get married so I can go through the pain of divorce and finally understand what it means to truly be self-compassionate – and sure, you can take away my financial security and I’d love to face addiction head-on, that sounds really intriguing.
Sign me up for communicating with a withdrawn teenager – or even better, give me a disrespectful one who rolls her eyes or argues with me every time I open my mouth to speak.
I’d definitely like to walk into the restaurant and see a woman I used to call my best friend having dinner with my sister and her roommate from college – that’s always fun. What a challenge!
I’m so excited to work my way through all of that.
And while you’re at it, go ahead and give me an autoimmune disease, a slow-moving job search, a miscarriage – and you can break my hot water heater, bring on menopause, take the thousands I invested in that creative project that tanked, give me tension with my mother-in-law, and let me feel the need to reevaluate every relationship in my life from my marriage to my oldest friendships to my career and even where I live…
I just can’t wait to get wise!
And yet here we are – with our hardship – and there’s a part of us that knows. We know there is wisdom on the other side.
Surely, one day you will be grateful for the lessons. But, right now, you’re not grateful for the learning.
We live in a time where information is king.
If you’re well-informed, which you are, you’re going to know all about the power of positive thinking, the character-affirming choice to take the high road, the correlation between success and your ability to delay gratification.
Of course, you *know* this.
But what happens when you don’t feel positive, when the on ramp to the high road is blocked, when it's gratifying – in that short-term way – to collapse beneath the crushing nature of it all?
What happens when you know all about gratitude – you know it’s the foundation for your happiness and you have plenty of reasons to be grateful – but still, gratitude eludes you?
And then you are (shamefully) – ungrateful. What happens then?
This is a choice point – this is the moment you get to experience two things being true at once.
I learned about this moment teaching preschool.
When a young child is missing his/her mom or her dad, that child stands by the door and cries. That child stares out the window, chin quivering, runny nose, and says over and over – I want my mommmy. I want my daddy.
And this is what we learn to do as preschool teachers.
I hear that you want your mom, you want your dad. You’re crying. You’re feeling sad. Your mommy will be here soon. You will see your Daddy so soon.
What can you do while you wait?
There’re blocks on the rug, you can use a sponge to wash the animals in the soapy water, there’s play dough on the table, your journal is in a basket in the loft and you can draw with colored pencils or markers today – and also, the snack center is open.
8 times out of 10 – the child makes a choice on his or her own.
The other 2 times – the teacher helps the child to choose.
Every child moves through the emotion of separating from a parent through choosing to play, to engage life as it is, to learn in the exact environment that is available in that exact moment to that child.
You know how children with red cheeks from crying look building blocks? They look focused. They look connected, involved – they’re participating in their life.
Later that day, the child is reunited with the parent – either at pickup or later at home – and over time, that child learns the lesson: I am OK without my parents. I can learn and live and be safe in the world without my mom, without my dad.
No person wants to be crying by the window, feeling loss and separation – we’re not grateful for that experience. No matter how old you are. I don’t think we’re supposed to be.
But when people – again, of any age – make a choice to participate in life – when they trust the learning process while they wait for lessons – those people begin to understand the same room that holds sadness in front of the window is a room full of people who will build blocks with you on the rug.
Teaching preschool during that time of my life – in a distant marriage, with three kids under three, exhausted and sick a lot of the time, frustrated with my unlived career dreams – that was hard. And I felt guilty every day that I wasn’t more grateful.
But those children, my students, they showed me what I could do while I waited for my lessons. They showed me one can be sad, overwhelmed and not OK and also be laughing, loving, and doing more than just fine.
Those children invited me into learning with them, participating in my life, appreciating little moments rather than loathing myself for being ungrateful at large.
The truth is, you’re not ungrateful at large. You don’t have to love every bit of the learning process, you don’t have to enjoy every step you take on your way to wisdom.
Permission to cry by the window and not feel badly about that – children don’t. And inside of each of us is a small child.
You can make a choice to explore, to play, to engage, to participate in life while you wait for the lessons.
When you get the lessons, you will feel grateful. Trust that. It’s true. You will look back on it and see what it gave you.
Until then, appreciate other things, smaller things that are open for your enjoyment – like colored pencils and snacks.
Day 4: Reflection Questions
*How do you relate to this notion of being ungrateful? Take note of the times you feel like you should feel grateful but you can’t access that genuine sense of gratitude.
*Make a choice right now to release the belief that you have to be grateful in any moment of hardship. When you’re flooded with negative feelings, it’s hard to reach for gratitude. What you can do is reach for acceptance. And that just means you remember that it is OK to be stressed, to feel down, to be suffering. Name those feelings. What hurts right now? Let it be.
*What are you going to do while you wait for your learning to become a lesson? What helps you get through the day? Do that. And appreciate that you can do that.