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By P Zachariah
In a few days I will be entering my 90th year. And if these are to be my parting words to you, they should have the ring of truth and authenticity, rather than rhetoric or piety.
We live in such unusual times that comparisons fail us. The Covid threat is ever present, our homes are our shelters as well as our prisons, and any one we encounter outside may turn out to be our nemesis. Your family plans are disrupted. Your children’s education, job placement, or marital plans are all on hold. And there is no armistice day in sight yet.
Naturally there is much discussion of the post pandemic scenario, with expectation as well as trepidation. As we look ahead, I am afraid things look no brighter. Three huge issues loom large before humanity in the next 25 years. The climate crisis is upon us, and will come to a head during this period. Secondly, the new economic dispensation will exacerbate the social and economic inequalities, which are already unacceptable. This could lead to widespread instability. And thirdly, the wave of democracy initiated by decolonisation and the end of the Cold War, seems to be giving way to a wave of autocratic regimes in many countries. Thus, now and in the days ahead, we are called to mobilise our inner resources to live meaningfully in times of much dislocation and decline.
I would like to address the idea of thankfulness in adversity, with truth and authenticity, and in a practicable way. And in a manner which will speak to you whatever your religious or spiritual persuasion may be.
The idea of thankfulness when faced with adversity seems a counter intuitive idea. It seems to be a contradiction. Life throws at us ‘the slings and arrows of importunate fate’. And we have the option of two responses. We could respond to them in negative ways in which case the harm is doubled, with the injury due to the arrows as well as the injury we inflict on ourselves by negative reactions of fear or defeat. We could also respond with resilience and a forward look, which can reduce the harm.
Thus, whatever our circumstances, to a certain extent we are the masters of our souls and the captains of our fate, and we do not need to be at the mercy of our circumstances. This is equally true of the blessings which come our way also. So my conclusion is that whether in the ordinary circumstances of our life or whether we are facing the Covid pandemic, we would do well to consider ways of increasing our capacity for positive responses, irrespective of the circumstances. We need help with the capacity to remain wholesome in a broken world. I would like to suggest that thankfulness is one such resource for wholeness.
What is thankfulness? It is more than particular acts of thanksgiving, though they are a necessary part of thankfulness. It is a quality of a person, which, of course, finds expression in his actions. It is a posture, the stance, we take against the experiences of life. Grateful people affirm that there are good things in the world. Not that life is mostly smooth and comfortable, but that with thankfulness we can identify the goodness in life. Martin Luther King Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So also a thankful person believes that life is a mixture of good and bad, but in totality it bends towards the good. To put it another way, his default position is thankfulness. The pendulum of life swings back and forth, but it will come to rest on the good side. So they feel free to celebrate the goodness of life.
Secondly, he or she recognises that the good things in his life is not entirely, or even mainly, our doing.It becomes possible because of a range of people and circumstances, or may be just good fortune. And so he/she tends to be socially conscious or socially responsible. It is out of the pool of the human predicament that we have received and into that pool we must make returns. Thus gratitude is a social emotion, a people centred emotion. Such people tend to have wider and richer interpersonal relationships.
Thirdly, thankfulness is a social good. With grateful people in a team, the team gels better and performs better. With enough grateful people, families, and institutions, our communities will develop an atmosphere of positivity, so essential to facing adversity.
Lastly, and importantly in our present context, thankful people are more stress resistant. Behavioral scientists quote many studies where, in the face of serious trauma and adversity, grateful people recover more quickly and fully. They are less prone to post-traumatic stress and endless anxiety.
Apart from these positive attributes, thankfulness enables you to avoid or overcome many negative attributes. When we receive some recognition or achieve something outstanding, we are often in danger of becoming conceited or overconfident. But if you are a thankful person, you will remember all the people and all the circumstances which contributed to your success. Thus your moment of success can also become an opportunity for humility.
Thankful people do not focus on what others may have received more than them. And thus they can avoid the corrosive influence of envy or resentment. On the other hand, gratitude turns what you have into enough and you enjoy it with thankfulness. Thus grateful people are contented and do not need an accumulation of things to be happy. A culture of thankfulness is an antidote to the pressing issues of modern life, namely the culture of consumerism, materialism and acquisitiveness.
Thus whether we are facing formidable challenges in the outer world or whether we are struggling to be better people than we are, thankfulness seems to be an enabler and catalyst. Somehow, thankfulness is a virtue that does not come to us naturally. Even where it seems most appropriate, it is hard work for us.
So, thankfulness is a choice we have to make and stay with. We need to deliberately cultivate the attitude of thankfulness, like we do physiotherapy exercises, especially as we grow older.
Let me suggest a simple way of life that can help to cultivate thankfulness. In the morning before you set out on the day’s life, take just two minutes to make a mental list of a few, perhaps three to five, things in the day’s schedule which could be reasons for thankfulness. And at the end of the day, as we go to bed, review the things we can be thankful for. We may be surprised to find more than you expected. As we learn to frame our day in this way with an attitude of thankfulness, we may be surprised to find that as our day unfolds, we keep finding reasons for thankfulness.
Ultimately it is a matter of how thankfulness finds expression in the little and bigger things of every day existence. Let me mention three levels at which this could happen. The first is a matter of saying “thank you.” From our childhood, we are taught to say this at every opportunity, even in the many occasions when the other person is only doing his duty. As life goes on, thank you gets emptied of its meaning, like the expression, ‘How are you?’ So my first suggestion is that you put a little thought behind each you say thank you, and really look at the person and his situation and what all might lie behind his action, whether it be the lift operator, the sales girl, the post man, or the bus conductor.
Secondly, the many episodes of our life are peopled with persons who are taken for granted. One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that we have suddenly become conscious of the many people we take for granted. Thus every day now, there are ample opportunities for us to identify the ignored persons and enrich their life with our affirmation, by voice, or perhaps in more significant ways.And thirdly, in the really difficult circumstances of life like the present pandemic, we could make an effort to give thanks for the silver linings and little rainbows which life offers.
(Dr P. Zachariah is ex-professor of physiology at CMC, Vellore. This is a message to his former students. He may be reached at [email protected])