South Africa is experiencing one of the most challenging droughts in the last 20 years. Municipalities have imposed water restrictions on citizens to overcome the 15% deficit the country is facing. The reservoirs and dams are drying up.
Rationing is taking place as we speak. You’d better shower by 8:55pm because tonight there won’t be any water from 9pm to 5am tomorrow morning. It’s scary. No, it’s terrifying. Listen to the news and you’ll see how critical the situation is.
And yet, every day this week we have had rain. In fact, this afternoon it’s pouring outside. Bucketing down. Lightning flashes, throbs of deafening thunder, rain pounding the ground with unrelenting frequency. It’s beautiful. I was about to drive out to attend my weekly capoeira class, but leaving now would be folly. The roads are flooded, there is intermittent hail and South African’s are notoriously bad drivers in the rain.
So I’ll stay inside and write instead. I’ll write about the times, when I was a child, that I wished the rain would “go away”, so that I could play outside. Those words in a time of drought are troubling to reflect on. When I see the rain now I feel relief, joy, wonder and gratitude. I see every drop doing what it’s been sent to do, nourish the dehydrated pockets of life, invigorating them with new possibilities.
But hang on a second. What about the people in the other parts of the world that are experiencing torrential floods? What about the people who have lost their homes to incessant rain, pounding and piling up until it seeps in under the doors? They flee with their lives, losing everything to the rain.
Gratitude is contextual. It’s relational. We make sense of it through our recent experiences, through our perspectives. So, breathe a sigh of relief, because gratitude is within our control.
“Really? Even in those moments where the world’s upside down and I’m falling to pieces? Give me a break!”
Yes, it is. I didn’t say it was easy, but the fact that we build up the context around gratitude means that we can shape it. Here is how you can begin to do it…
It’s easy to lose track of what there is to be grateful for when we start moving into comparisons. For example, “I’m loving the rain…but somewhere in the world someone is drowning.” How easy was it to think of that? In seconds, the joy I felt is erased by something akin to guilt or suffering.
Have you ever watched a flu virus ripple through a school? Everyone is terrified of it arriving. It’s all they think about. It’s as if the virus is this towering, unwelcome visitor that will eventually reach your home, and knock on your door. When you’re talking about this virus, even whispering it, you’re really not sharing anything more than a feeling. And you share this feeling with the people around you. Soon this feeling becomes contagious.
Well contagions works both ways. If you want to feel more gratitude, speak about it. Let everyone know how amazing this moment is. “Yes, finally! It’s raining! It’s pouring!”
You may have the few killjoys who disagree with you, but genuine enthusiasm, gratitude and excitement are ridiculously difficult to extinguish. The more you speak your joy, the more contagious it becomes, and the more it cycles right back to you.
It was Keith Johnstone who said, “lose your mind and come to your senses.” For most of the world, being lost in our thoughts and emotions has become an epidemic. We are plagued by dreadful “what if?” questions.
“What if I’m late for work?”
“What if Lucy chokes on the chicken sandwich I made her?”
“What if Brian never forgives me?”
“What if I’m sued for negligence?”
Yes, every “what if?” is a possibility, but so are the multitudes of opportunities that lie alongside it. These questions take us deeper into the illogical realms of our imaginations. The deeper we go, the greater the emotional charges become.
However, there’s a way back from this. Use what you were born with – your functioning senses. Lock in the gratitude by revelling in what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Then lock them in with an emotion. Here’s a methodology you can implement in every moment:
• Speak in the present tense.
• Describe what you hear, see, taste, smell, touch.
• Remind yourself how you feel in this moment.
• Notice an emotion that you’re feeling now.
• Lock in this feeling by giving it part of your attention.
• Breathe this feeling into different parts of your body. Close your eyes if you have to.
• Smile, notice your breath, notice what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling again.
After an emotionally exhausting day of teaching, dealing with issues that were beyond my control, I was ready to throw in the towel. In fact, I was ready to curl up into a ball and forget about the day. That was when I heard a knock at my door. I opened it. Standing there was an 8 year old boy I teach. In his hand he held a folded scrap of dirty paper. He handed it over to me.
"What is this?" I asked.
"It's for you," he said, hands behind his back. "to say 'thanks' for everything you do for me."
10 seconds later, he was gone. But I continued to hold the paper in my hand for almost 5 minutes. I stood there until I had forgotten all about the heaviness of the day. I stood there until I was smiling, tears shimmering in my eyes. That piece of paper now lives in my wallet. It's my anchor. My reminder. It's going to be something I draw on for perspective, for context. Each time I hold it in my hands I go right back to the moment it was given to me.
Do the same for yourself. Seek out an object that has significance. Make it a small one and you'll be able to take it with you wherever you need to go. Think of it as a shield against the hammerings of life.
Gratitude doesn’t have to be electrifying. In fact, most of the time it’s nothing even remotely close to electric. Gratitude is more like the roots of a giant tree. It is slow, silent and grows without notice. Then one day it’s so strong that it breaks through the concrete impediments in our mindsets and frees us up to believe like children once again.
Because if not for that single reason, to be filled with childlike wonder, why should we be grateful? Why should we even be alive? That brilliance we were born with as children was the stuff that made our parents laugh and smile. It was the very thing that got them up in the morning, even if they hated their jobs. They knew that they’d come home to a little being that understood that there was so much more to life. Just like they taught us, we reminded them what it meant to be brilliant.
As I write, afternoon has faded into evening. The rain has stopped. The ground has greedily soaked up the excess of water. Thunder murmurs in the distance and flashes of lightning parade through the sky in eccentric shades. My imagination travels back to the idea of people being forced out of their homes by vast torrents of unyielding rain somewhere on the opposite side of the world. However, I stop myself and remember that gratitude is contextual. I ask, “what do they have to be grateful for?” and suddenly I see their wet bodies cloaked in warm blankets. A cup of hot chocolate placed into their trembling hands. The smell of cocoa wafts up their noses. Despite the unfairness of this situation, a deep, beautiful smile forms on their lips. They choose to be grateful.
If you've enjoyed this, here's an article I wrote a few years ago that continues the theme of gratitude. It's all about the day I thought I was paralysed.
© The Brilliance Quotient 2017