By Steven Hodes, M.D.
Physician to Meta-Physician
Many of us are dissatisfied with our lives–many are frustrated, bored, depressed, anxious. We are discontent, unhappy–but what are we all looking for? We live in a society and culture which offers us easy access to material goods. We appreciate very little because we live in a world of such abundance. We are told that our cars are not good enough, our spouses are not sexy enough, our clothes are behind the times, our homes are inadequate, our careers mediocre, our erections less than magnificent.
At times we are exposed to overwhelming pictures of poverty, usually on TV commercials. We turn our heads from such sadness and degradation. We notice how precious even simple toys, clothes, a morsel of food are to such children and we are rightfully embarrassed by our own abundance. We are grateful for very little. Instead we want more. We demand more and believe that what will satisfy us is more of what we already have. It is never about the intangibles: love, relationships, families, friends, health, contentment, a sense of peace. We have all forgotten one of life’s most obvious lessons–cultivating a state of mind in which gratitude is present is ultimately healing. It can offer us much of what we are seeking–a sense of peace and contentment.
Money, career, properties, vacations, net worth, cars, the colleges and even our children’s careers: enumerating a list of our wants becomes a list of demands. If other people can have them then why can’t we obtain them as well. We are competitive. Life seems to be a contest in which the winner has more of everything than anyone else. Yet this aggressive aspect rarely brings a sense of wholeness or contentment. How can it? We are so driven by the process of acquiring that we can barely enjoy what we do have. Even love and friendship is seen as a commodity. How many dear friends do you have? How many calls or emails did you receive? How many birthday cards?
We have all but forgotten the simple, satisfying beauty of gratitude. It is a way of acknowledging the wonder of existence. Cultivating a mind of gratitude forces us to look at what we value in our lives and step outside of our cultural and societal patterns. If we have a family then we can be grateful for who they are even if we have conflicts at times with them. We can choose to be grateful for the opportunity or challenge of dealing with them. Difficulties can be seen as opportunities, as spiritual ‘advanced placement courses’.
Several years ago I noticed that I would become emotionally drained by the many patients I saw in my office on any given day. At times I would resent their demands or attitudes, or the fees that insurance companies would pay me for my time and effort. I wasn’t having much fun or enjoyment either. Then I learned about the Kabbalistic lesson that beggars in Jerusalem understood. They knew that their presence, their outstretched hand would offer another individual an opportunity to perform a mitzvah, an act of charity which brought spiritual benefits to them. I began to see that the patients who entered my examination room were offering me an opportunity to do good deeds or mitzvot. I became grateful for their presence and my energy levels swelled concomitantly. No longer drained by the patient-doctor encounter, I actually was energized by virtue of my gratitude.
Being grateful for the morning, for an opportunity to live another day, for a chance to help someone else get through their own lives with an act of kindness, a smile, allowing them into a line of traffic–calling your parent or child or friend and just telling them you are grateful for having them in your life is ultimately an act of love that heals both of you. It costs nothing yet it is priceless. And it leads to contentment and joy.
Gratitude requires us to freeze the frenetic pace of your life–to stop in our tracks and to live in the moment. Only if we stop time can we acknowledge that we appreciate anything. A sunset, a flower, a bird, bee, a beautiful face, observing a tender moment between mother and child–the list is endless. Yet it is not the same kind of list I mentioned before.
Gratitude requires that we explore the good and fulfilling aspects of our life and allow the negative and painful elements to stand back for a while. Clearly, we have not forgotten that we live imperfect lives. In fact, we usually are SO focused on what is missing, what is incomplete, our loses and frustrations, that we spoil what is truly amazing about our lives.
Gratitude takes us out of our own sadness for a moment. It shakes us out of our victim mentality which pulls us down inwardly, in despair. It breaks our egocentric perspective on life. Gratitude forces us to be grateful for something or someone–outside of ourselves. It forces us to look around–to focus less on how we ‘feel’ as isolated beings and to see ourselves as an essentially component in a network of relationships. Gratitude forces us to see that we are connected to others, that there are people who care about us, will be there for us even in our darkest moments. It may let us re-consider behavior which may ultimately hurt us–because we realize that it will hurt those we love. It speaks to something far greater than ourselves. It forces us to see ourselves within a larger context. We are allowed to feel small in the face of gratitude but not meaningless. We are allowed to find a spiritual sense of ourselves, to be grateful for being alive, no matter how bad our lives seem. Gratitude does not acknowledge failure, only a detour away from success. Gratitude sees mistakes as natural and forgivable. It sees them as opportunities for self-correction, not punishment. Gratitude is about opportunities to change and grow. Gratitude is optimistic in that it allows for anything to happen in the next moment. Gratitude is about being open to transformation.
Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his seminal work MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING correlated survival in concentration camps with an individual’s ability to find meaning in the smallest piece of existence. Even the sight of a new bud on a spring branch became a joyous reason to keep living. He was writing about gratitude. Gratitude provides meaning. To ‘stop and smell the roses’ is an act of gratitude. It is about the awareness of the special quality of being alive.
Being grateful may not come naturally to many of us. It requires an act of will, a choice. This is a step in demonstrating the ability we have to train our minds, to become less reactive to life’s events and to access more of our human potential.
As I have previously outlined in prior postings, this summer was clearly one of the most difficult and painful in my entire life. At my lowest moments I kept reminding myself to be grateful for what I had–all those years with my Mother as a caring and loving part of my life, her peaceful passing, my remaining family and how we supported each other during those dark times. Close associates, patients and well-wishers who sent their thoughts and prayers. I knew that I had to remain physically, emotionally and spiritually strong during those difficult times. I can only believe that this attitude of gratitude helped me get through those dark days.
I lost my Mother but my Father pulled through two hospitalizations, a horrendous case of pneumonia, a broken hip and a broken heart–but he is one the mend. I am grateful for his presence, and I for what I have learned from this summer. If I can remain mindful of the value of close friends, family and to appreciate every moment, then I will have experienced an enormous healing. In that sense I can be grateful for having learned to be grateful.
Steven E. Hodes, M.D., 2006
Steven E. Hodes, M.D. is a board certified gastroenterologist with over 25 years private practice based in Edison and Old Bridge New Jersey. He also has a degree in Religious Studies and teaches Contemporary Metaphysics at Brookdale College as well as lecturing and writing on Kabbalah and Healing, the Jewish View of Afterlife and on Near-Death Experience. Visit him at his Blog, Physician to Meta-Physician at http://www.meta-md.com.