Last summer, after a blissful week of vacation on Martha’s Vineyard with dear friends, it came time to head back to Charlottesville and work. Anticipating the ferry ride and long drive ahead, I took Moune, my dog, for a dawn ramble in the woods and fields: dragonflies, deer to chase, the sounds of West Tisbury rising. My mind was on the journey when suddenly I heard Moune yipping—that excited barky yip she gets around treed squirrels and other potential prey. I quickly rounded the corner, then braked. There she was, in a face-off with a skunk. No more than eight feet between them: a stare-down. The skunk was crouched, its posterior high. I put on a low, v-e-r-y s-e-r-i-o-u-s, “I’m not panicking but you had better listen to me NOW” voice and managed to call her back, take hold of her collar, and walk the other way. The skunk seemed to hesitate, then beat a retreat. I couldn’t believe our luck.
During the drive back I got lost in Connecticut, spent hours in traffic jams, nearly ran out of gas, found that my GPS always took me straight into bottlenecks, and contended with drivers who passed everyone on the right and then nosed in. It was beastly hot. I was hungry and needed a bathroom break. Usually, despite my best intentions, I’m an incorrigibly irritable driver. But this time nothing could ruffle me. All the way home, I was thanking the buddhas and bodhisattvas of the three times and ten directions that we had not been skunked.
It seems our brains are wired to notice interruptions or changes in our daily grind, and notably anything that jars or threatens. Scientists call this mechanism “negativity bias.” Essential for survival in hostile environments, it continues to color our everyday experience even after having outlived its usefulness. We pay attention to the bad stuff, take the good stuff for granted, and overlook the neutral. In broad terms, “bad stuff” is whatever jeopardizes individual or tribal survival or physical or emotional wellbeing. We usually realize how wonderful it was to have a reliable, air-conditioned, odor-free car if a problem surfaces. To have functioning limbs, organs, and wits when they begin to fail us. To enjoy clean water and air when they become polluted and rank. To have icebergs and snow mountains when they are melting. To be able to rely on the stability of the earth when it starts moving. To breathe when even that has become a struggle.
In his essay “The Peace of the Divine Reality” (in the anthology For the Love of God: Handbook for the Divine Spirit), Thich Nhat Hanh states, “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. That is peace. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be very happy. Therefore to look deeply at the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache, that can make me very happy already.”
While my toothaches and other maladies have not exactly ushered me to enlightenment, identifying the fruitless influence of negativity bias gives me the opportunity to counter it. The skunk incident was a wake-up call. I’ve been creating gratitude lists in my mind as I fall asleep at night and—miracle—wake up in the morning. I’ve been composing them as I walk the hospital, grateful for my health, the opportunity to help, the staff, patients, and patients’ families. Grateful for the present moment and this precious human life. For access to teachings. Teachers. Family. Communities. For the wondrous net of beings and resources that go into making it possible for me to exist.
So many factors demand our attention; isn’t it awesome that we have at least some influence over what we choose to focus on? And if there is power in acknowledging and being thankful for even small blessings, the power of finding meaning in the face of suffering can be transformative. Jack Kornfield echoes this in an interview published on The Huffington Post: “I remember my meditation master in the jungles of Thailand who would ask at times, Where have you learned more compassion? Where have you learned more? Where has your heart grown wiser—in just having good times, or going through difficulties?”
When difficulties are seen to be unbidden blessings, the oft-cited lojong maxim Be grateful to everyone blossoms into Be grateful for everything. In my work as a chaplain, I have accompanied and been inspired by a good many people who use their new realities to grow in ways they may never have imagined, giving meaning to their challenges through newfound forgiveness, acceptance, compassion, and love. They speak to me of the gifts of repaired relationships, renewed faith, a more positive sense of purpose and priorities. I listen, admire, and wonder if I will be able to follow their examples the next time adversity strikes.
Maybe. Evolutionarily speaking, I’m remarkably fit. I effortlessly notice anything that jars, stockpile painful physical and emotional experiences, and use them to anticipate the future. I can always think up a thousand ways that things could—and should—be better. But sometimes gratitude grabs me and shakes me out of my habits, and I know that the wise ones are right. Walking home of a morning after a long night at the hospital, enclosed in the experiences and emotions of a tough shift, I catch a whiff of late-blooming honeysuckle, and I am so delighted that the world starts to sing. And in that moment, I am grateful for everything.
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