This is the second in a series of posts about Life Lessons from Our Elders. The first one, Be Present for Your Life, can be found here. These are lessons for anyone at any age, as there is so much we can learn from one another.
Most young people have no idea of the riches they possess. I know I didn’t (I’m 54 now). Good health, unlimited opportunities, beautiful bodies, hope and optimism. They take these things for granted. The lesson here is to appreciate what you have, and the tricky part is not to be attached to it. So let’s break this down.
Appreciating what you have means first noticing what you have, then being grateful for it. There is always something. You are alive and breathing. If you are reading this, you have some capabilities, no matter what the circumstances in your life are. Think of Mary Jane from Lesson #1, and use her as a guide to discover what you are grateful for.
If you need more inspiration, consider this. Psychologists Robert Emmons, Ph.D. And Michael McCullough, Ph.D. asked people to keep a weekly gratitude list and compared them to people writing a list of hassles or neutral events. The requirement was minimal: one sentence containing five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week. The results were impressive. At the end of 10 weeks, the group who kept the gratitude list were 25 percent happier than the other participants. They reported fewer health complaints and spent more time exercising. The next study, in which the gratitude list was kept on a daily basis, showed an even stronger effect. The gratitude group reported feeling more joyful, interested, and energetic, and were rated as more helpful by their friends.
If you want to be more appreciative, create your own gratitude list, and for each item say, “Thank you.” Feel the appreciation sink into every cell, letting it in completely. Do this each day. In fact, live in appreciation for everything always. You only really have what you have in this moment.
Not being attached to these things you appreciate means knowing that they are temporary. And all of it is temporary – your body, people in your life, everything you think you are. Check this out and see. Are you really a father or daughter, or are these roles you have taken on? Do you own anything? Isn’t it the case that it could all be taken away? I know some people who lost their homes in fires recently who got a huge dose of this reality.
If you are attached, if you define yourself by the roles you play and the things you own, including your body, you are setting yourself up for a big fall. Because we can completely rely on the fact that none of this will last forever.
Emma was a lovely 89-year-old woman who was a good friend; however, she was not always easy to be with. She complained all the time about her physical frailties and was bent on resisting the reality of aging. She had been a successful real estate agent and political rabblerouser, and just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that these identities were gone. Her body was clearly taking her down a certain path, but her mind refused to follow. It was obvious to me that she wasn’t going to change her view. It became a deeply enriching practice for me to love her as is and not resist her resistance. In the end, she was more than ready to die as her physical condition declined. I hope she died in peace, but I will never know.
Contemplating the death of all things can be morbid if we focus on the losses. We can cling and live in fear of the future. What I have learned is to turn that around, to hold everything and everyone so very tenderly, to celebrate and appreciate until my heart can hardly bear any more. This is the lesson my elders have taught me.