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Gratitude in Vulnerable Times

A lot of books have been written about gratitude. I think it is a well-received idea that gratitude is a nice thing to do. It is polite and people will like you better when you notice them and give thanks, and relationships will thrive with expression of gratitude. But I want to address the use of gratitude in our most vulnerable times, when it is not about being polite, nice or wanting to be liked.

When I was twenty years old, I almost died at the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. I was a nursing student there at the time and developed septicemia (a widespread bacterial infection in my blood) from a mismanaged dental emergency from a small dentist in upstate NY while visiting with Barry. Once back at the University, my fever quickly soared to a dangerous 107 and I had to be packed in ice and was placed in the isolation ICU unit. The chief physician called my parents in Buffalo to tell them they must rush to my side as he believed I would die quickly.

But what was happening inside of me while all of this drama was unfolding? I was struggling to maintain consciousness. People around me were wondering out loud how long I might live, as if I couldn’t hear them. Somewhere in my brain that was barely functioning I decided that I would say and feel my gratitude to each person who tried to help me. For even the smallest thing that was done to me, and there were many small and big things, I said, “thank you for helping me.” Sometimes my voice was so weak that they had to lean in closer to my mouth to hear my words. Each time I said the words, “thank you,” I felt the connection to my soul and heart grow stronger. Saying “thank you” became my lifeline of strength. And in a large city hospital where people in crisis are more apt to be treated as a disease than a human being, my gratitude drew their attention back to the fact that indeed here was a human being inside this terrible medical crisis. The nurses, orderlies, doctors and even the janitors treated me with more kindness once they heard my weak words thanking them. There is much about that vulnerable time that I remember, but one thing that stands out is the feeling of strength that returned to me each time I thanked someone.

Gratitude in Vulnerable Times

Another very vulnerable time for me was when our young family of five experienced the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that totally destroyed our rental home with all five of us inside. Our son was only five months old at the time. Each one of us, especially our son, came very close to being killed. We were all in a state of shock as we looked at the house that had been our home for thirteen years and realized that we would never be able to live there again.

People began arriving at our home and helping in the most amazing ways. Someone sat me down and fed me some healthy food. Someone else washed the blood from our two little girl’s legs. Others found our dogs and cats, and still others rented a U-Haul truck and began packing up the few things that were not destroyed.

After a few hours of being totally taken care of, I realized I must contact my strength again. I began by thanking God for saving us from this disaster and allowing all five of us to survive. Remembering my experience in the hospital, I went to each precious person and held their hands and looked long into their eyes and expressed my gratitude. With each thank you my mother strength returned until I was ready to make the big changes that our family needed to survive.

Gratitude also brings strength and clarity in times of great stress. Twenty years ago, Barry and I were scheduled to do a couple’s retreat in Massachusetts. Since Barry’s mother lived in New York, we both decided he should go ahead a week early and visit with her. I would stay home, take care of our children, and join him in Massachusetts for the retreat. When I arrived at the airport, I was told that all flights with a stop in Chicago were cancelled for the weekend due to extreme weather. I was also told that there was no possible way I would make it to the east coast, and that I should go home.

Barry did not want to do the couple’s retreat without me since we had a very big group at the retreat. It felt so important that somehow I get myself to Massachusetts. I went to the gate and approached a very weary attendant. Many people had been yelling at her with frustration. I kindly looked her in the eyes and thanked her first for the difficult job she had that day, and then for trying to help me. She shook her head and said she couldn’t help me, but I thanked her again for trying.

There were three airports in the San Francisco Bay area and three in the New York City area. Surely I felt a way could be found. I was asking her to check out all of these possibilities. She started once again to tell me that it was impossible while all around me I could hear people yelling at the other attendants because they could not be helped. I kept my voice very calm and kept thanking her for each time she tried. Finally, on the last try, she found one seat from San Francisco to the Kennedy Airport. I thanked her in the biggest way I could and a bright smile crossed her face. Because of my expressions of gratitude, she had given me that little bit of extra attention.

Gratitude brings strength to the heart and allows us to contact the place within us that is wise and powerful, no matter how vulnerable or stressed we might feel. Everything might be falling apart around us, but in the expression of gratitude, first to God and then to whoever is helping, we will feel our strength return. Expressing gratitude is perhaps the most powerful way we can live.

Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell:

Feb 11-16, 2020 — The Couples Journey, Aptos (for couples)

Jun 7-14, 2020 — Shared Heart Alaska Cruise, leaving from Seattle (for singles and couples)

Jul 19-24, 2020 — Shared Heart Summer Retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, OR (for singles, couples and families)

Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books. Call 831-684-2299 for further information on counseling sessions by phone/Skype or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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Therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, near Santa Cruz, CA. Widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship & personal growth.

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I would like to offer you my experience of “sheltering in place” for three months thirty-three years ago, and what I learned.

When asked as a child what I most wanted to be when I grew up, my only answer was, “I want to be a mother.” Often this answer was met with a comment like, “Oh, you must want to be something other than just a mother!” But for me, there was no more exciting adventure than wanting to be a mother.

I was blessed in 1976 with the birth of a little girl, and then again in 1981 with another little girl. I loved being a mother so much, and found so much joy in just being with our girls, Rami and Mira. But I yearned for more children, and always thought that four would be a perfect number for me. Barry was very happy and content with our two girls, but my desire was so strong that he lovingly consented to another baby.

In 1987, I became pregnant again and I was thrilled!!! I meditated with the baby, sang to her, lovingly stroked my hands over my belly, and told my baby stories. I was totally in love with this unborn baby, and Barry and our girls were as well. I was so sure that the baby was a girl, that I named her Anjel, because she was my angel. Anjel was an important part of our family. Then two days after Christmas when I was six months pregnant, we discovered that our precious Anjel no longer had a heartbeat.

Devastated, I needed an operation to have her body removed and got to hold her lifeless form for a short time. My milk came in, just as if I had given birth to a live baby. My body was still trying to finish what it had started six months before.

I went into a very deep grief. Barry agreed to take on my part our business work, so my only job was to watch and care for our two little girls. It was a joy to be with our girls, and they were at an age where they loved playing alone and together making up stories. That left me lots of time all to myself to deal with the grief that I felt. I tried going out with our daughters a few times, but it seemed I always saw another woman who was pregnant, and that would send me running to our car in tears. Barry and I decided that I would stay completely at home and only see him and our girls while I was healing from the grief.

And in this period of sheltering at home, this is the most important lesson I learned. The practice of gratitude is powerful and can bring us through even the hardest times. There are some things that are easy to be grateful for, and it is powerful to concentrate on those. But there are also things that seem too hard to feel grateful for. It is during these times when gratitude is so difficult to feel, that we can be grateful that someday we will understand.

There were days when my grief over the loss of our baby was so extreme that I could hardly function. During these times, I would give thanks that one day I would understand why our baby was taken from us. I would thank God that one day I would receive a gift from this experience and that this gift would bring me great joy. It was the act of giving thanks in the future, even though I did not feel it in the present, that brought me through one of the most difficult periods of my life. And the gift that eventually came was a beautiful little baby boy that rested in my arms two and a half years later.

We have a very dear friend, Sister Sally, who lives in South Africa. She runs The Holy Family Care Centre for 76 orphans, many of whom have HIV or AIDS, making them very vulnerable to the current coronavirus pandemic. Like us, they are also required to “shelter in place.” The children, some of whom are babies, are all home from school for the rest of the year. They are a five-hour drive to the nearest hospital in Limpopo. She has ten volunteers and some of them cannot speak English. Of these volunteers, one has limited nursing training, so she is in charge of any sick children. Sister Sally is in charge of keeping all of these vulnerable children, as well as her ten volunteers, safe and healthy. This would be an overwhelming task for anyone.

I just spoke to Sally, and her energy and spirit was high. On the phone, she expressed all of the things that she is grateful for, like the fact that she has ten volunteers who are willing to stay given the obvious risks. She is practicing thanking God ahead of time for protection. This act of gratitude is keeping her going and keeping her spirits up.

Perhaps it is difficult to be sheltering at home for an unknown amount of time. Perhaps you have fears that you will get the virus or that someone you love will die from it, or you will lose your job and have financial hardship. Perhaps it is difficult to feel your purpose and energy while you sit at home day after day. Perhaps you are afraid that life will never return to normal, and you can hug people without fear, go to dances, sporting events, religious services, or just have a large family dinner together.

The practice of giving thanks ahead of time, with the hope that one day a gift will come to you from all of this, can bring you through even the hardest day. As you do this day by day, your gratitude will become stronger than any fear you can have.

Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following longer events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell:

Jul 19-24, 2020 — Shared Heart Summer Retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, OR (for singles, couples and families)

Oct 7-13, 2020 — Assisi Retreat, Assisi, Italy

Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are passionate about conscious relationship and personal-spiritual growth. They are the authors of 9 books. Call 831-684-2299 for further information on counseling sessions by phone/Skype or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.

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