Dear Older Self,
Author and blogger, Glennon Doyle Melton coined a word to capture the experience of life. She calls life “brutiful”. It is brutal. And it is beautiful. So, life is brutiful. Life is never just one or the other. There is so much that is hard about life. And so much that is blessed.
For some of us it is too easy to get lost in the parts of life that are difficult. It is easy to get swallowed up in a negative focus and become discouraged, angry and even bitter.
This may be especially true as your own health challenges grow, as losses accumulate, as life slows down. It is, of course, important to stay grounded in the hard realities of life. I do not, dear older self, encourage you to pretend or to deny or to minimize the brutal parts of this “brutiful” life. I want you to make room for the feelings of grief that come washing over you. I want you to take time to honor changes and losses, to write and talk and pray about your fears and needs and sorrows.
But I don’t want you to get lost in despair or fall into deep discouragement. I don’t want you to obsess about worse case scenarios or to feed your anger or bitterness about things you cannot control.
I want you to be able to invite your experiences and your feelings to sit around a campfire with you. You might want to picture yourself on the beach in the evening, sitting near a fire pit with a glorious fire. Or in the desert at night under the stars, sitting near a campfire. As you sit near the fire in this spacious place invite your losses and changes and thoughts and feelings to come and sit with you. Invite them first to quiet themselves, to rest awhile. And then invite them to speak to you. What is your irritation saying? What is your grief expressing? What is your fear about? Let them be there with you, near the great water or under the majestic night sky. Listen to them. Learn from them.
And then invite gratitude to come as well. Invite your gratitude to speak. Let gratitude ease the burden of disappointment or judgement or anger or sorrow or fear. Let gratitude offer new eyes and renewed hope. You have experienced many times how gratitude can change the way you tell the unfolding story of your life. It can take something painful, something even brutal and add what it takes to make it into something brutiful.
An example of this is that difficult stretch in time after you had your first and only seizure. Remember how resentful you felt about having to take a medication to prevent further events? You spent a lot of time being negative about it. You didn’t like how it made you feel. You didn’t like the DMV telling you what you had to do to get back your driver’s license. You were not a happy camper—and you were not always easy to be around.
You were negative about the whole situation. But then one of your adult students, who was an inmate in jail, shared with you that he was also on anti-seizure medication. He told you that he saw it as a gift. And he told you all the reasons it was a gift. He told you how taking it kept you safe. He told you how good it was that such a medication even existed. He told you how it increased the possibility that you would be able to drive again soon.
He was right. It was a gift to be received with gratitude.
That student and his reminder were a great help to you. You begin to shift from focusing exclusively on all that seemed difficult and you began to acknowledge that with the difficulty there had been gifts. You began to focus on all that was beautiful about the medication—and even what was beautiful about your temporary loss of your driver’s license. You became better able to receive both love and practical help from supportive family and friends. And it increased your gratitude for all the good medical care and for your general good health and for each day, day after day, that you were seizure-free. All of this made a profound difference for you. And it made a big difference to people around you.
So, dear older self, I encourage you to practice gratitude. Every day. After you invite all your feelings to the campfire and take the time to listen carefully to the fears and resentments, I encourage you to ask them to listen with you to all that is good, all that is pure gift. Allow the gratitude to speak the deepest truth to you, the truth that in all things you are loved, you are held.
Do know that gratitude comes to us in different ways. Sometimes gratitude rises spontaneously in you. You know when you are relieved or amazed by something, how in those kinds of moments, you feel an out pouring of thankfulness that seems to emerge on its own.
But you also know that usually gratitude is more of an intentional practice. One way to intentionally practice gratitude is to simply express thanks in the moment. You might do this in songs of praise. You might do this by saying “thank you” out loud. Or you might offer your thanks as a prayer that you express quietly within. You might engage in this practice, for instance, when you are sitting and listening to someone. You might choose to quietly pray, “thank you for John.” Or you might use a similar internal prayer to ground you and open your heart to any moment. “Thank you for this new day.” “Thank you for this refreshing tea.” Doing this from time to time during the day can help you open your eyes and soften your heart to receive the gifts you are being given in the moment. Return to this simple practice often.
Gratitude can also be a practice that you engage in like an artist going about her work. Or like a child at play. You know how an artist can capture beauty that others might miss. They see something of significance when the morning’s light shines on a rusted milk can which is sitting next to a barn door whose paint has been chipped away by the years. And you know how a child can do this same thing by simply picking up a rock and examining it like a treasure.
This practice of seeing through an artist’s or a child’s eyes involves three basic processes. First, slow down and notice the gifts that are being given to you in any given moment. Notice the gifts you might have come to think of as “ordinary.” And notice the gifts that are extraordinary. Notice and name the gifts. Acknowledge them out loud. Write them down each day.
The second part of the process is to open up your heart to receive the gifts that you are being given. Receive them as expressions of God’s care for you from moment to moment. Let them be like love notes from the One who loves you always. Picture yourself opening your hands to receive the gifts being given to you.
And finally, express your thanks with a simple “thank you.” Expressing gratitude for the gifts and the Giver will allow you to take in the gifts and to take in the love that is behind them. Let yourself sense the smile of God, the Giver of all good gifts as you smile your acknowledgement and express your thanks.
Remember the experience of walking with your 97 year old widowed friend up and down the hall from her bedroom recliner to the bathroom? I want you to remember the joy it was to hold on to her arm as she held on to her walker. She whispered “Thank you, Lord!” with each step she took. Each step was a gift given and a gift counted and received. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.“ It became a kind of hymn of praise that the two of you sang over and over again.
Look for the gifts and the grace. Look for all that is beautiful. Even if it is as small as one step taken with a walker. Practice daily gratitude to celebrate these things, big and small. Write your gratitude. Sing your gratitude. Speak your gratitude. Pray your gratitude. Count the gifts. Thank the Giver. And your heart will know greater peace.
This meditation is taken from Notes to Our Older Selves: Suggestions for Aging With Grace by Juanita Ryan and Mary Rae. You can get a copy at Amazon.com