Are you unhappy?
Just decide not to be. Decide to be happy, instead.
Is it that simple? Yes, I think so, actually.
One of the standard bits of coping advice is to “show gratitude.” Gratitude is all the rage, dontchaknow? They say just taking a few seconds each day to deliberately be thankful for something — anything — pays great dividends.
Maybe not everyone realizes this part: By showing gratitude, we’re simply deciding to be happy. The act of being grateful itself is to admit, maintain, insist that we are happy. We’re deciding to be happy for whatever it is we think deserves our gratitude.
I’m frequently grateful for my healthy kid. He’s a pretty normal 8-year-old. Energetic, talkative, joyful. “Unbearable at times” is the phrase I think I’m looking for. But that’s your normal 8-year-old for you. I’m grateful he’s that way.
But just after he was born, I had doubts I’d ever have him around to jangle my nerves with hypothetical questions about what penguins would be thinking as the first salvos of a nuclear attack on Antarctica rained down upon them. He was an emergency c-section. His birthweight at 35 weeks was 4 pounds, 1 ounce, though he quickly dropped below four pounds. He was the smallest kid in the nursery, though there seemed to be no reason to take him to the NICU. The doctors said everything worked, just in miniature form.
Sometime after we got him home, we realized he couldn’t eat. Breastfeeding was out of the question. His mom had enough problems even caring for herself, and — in retrospect — her milk was probably dangerous. The bottles and formula weren’t working. He’d suck on the bottle for a while, then pass out. Too tired to eat. He was failing to thrive. The family doctor wasn’t helping. He really didn’t have a clue.
At his one-week birthday, I checked him into Children’s Hospital in Denver. An hour or so later he was in a room and hooked up to tubes. Still, no major problems detected. He was just too small to eat on his own. This problem isn’t at all uncommon among low-weight preemies. They have a cure. An IV solution started pumping calories into him, and he’d soon go on to quickly gain weight and energy. He was going to be ok, and I knew it then. But still . . .
It’s at those times when it’s really hard to show gratitude. I looked around that hospital room and raged. I raged at my son’s mother. I raged at myself. I raged at the doctors, the hospital where he had been born, my in-laws, everyone. I raged at whatever had brought me to that point –whatever had caused me to allow her to do what she did to herself while pregnant. I regretted our relationship in the first place. All was rage. None was gratitude. Grateful? For . . . ?
I had given up smoking months earlier. That first night at the hospital, I started again.
I walked to the smoking area outside. It seemed blocks away from the main entrance. A young couple sat on the bench. We nodded and smiled. They wore the clothes of rural people. Something horrible had happened, I could tell — though at first I said nothing. Smoking is one of those inherently sociable activities now. It’s been made that way by social rejection. These days if you smoke you’re in a special club, and you feel at liberty to talk to other smokers. The woman asked me if I was there for someone in the hospital. I explained. She told me how sorry she was. They were from somewhere outside Cody, Wyoming.
Her husband explained why they were there. They had an infant daughter. Soon after she was born, the hospital sent her home with a clean bill of health. After a few months, the parents asked themselves why she sometimes screamed in pain while eating baby food. The family doctor prescribed Tylenol and said she’d grow out of it. One night they watched her nearly turn blue while eating. The next day they drove her to the university hospital in Casper, a hundred miles away.
A few hours after they checked in at the university medical center, a helicopter was touching down outside. The girl was on life-support. They flew her and the parents to the Casper airport, then rushed everyone onto a charter flight to Denver.
The girl had been born with her organs reversed. Her heart was on the wrong side. So was the liver. The disorder had caused multiple hernias and stomach obstructions. The doctors at Children’s talked of multiple surgeries projected out years, but it looked like she was going to be OK. They were going to be able to keep their daughter.
I looked at them. They’d been emotionally wrung out. But they were happy. They were grateful.
I looked back at that hospital building. I felt grateful for the first time in weeks. Maybe months. Maybe even years.
I had decided to be happy.
Be grateful. Choose to be happy. About something. Anything. It works.
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