For me, many years of unhappiness could have been alleviated if I had understood the meaning of appreciation sooner. As a kid, and then as a young adult, I didn’t realize that knowing you should appreciate something and actually feeling appreciation for it were different. In addition, it took years for me to learn that appreciation, like most things in this world, is multi-dimensional.
For example, appreciation is not just saying thank you for a gift and then thinking about how you can use it in your life. To truly appreciate a gift from someone, you have to understand what it meant to the person who gave it to you. This includes understanding what it meant for the person to spend money on the gift or to make a decision about what gift to give. A lot of little decisions go into giving most gifts, and there's also effort expended to turn the idea of a gift into a reality.
Here's another example of how appreciation is multi-dimensional. Appreciating a flower isn’t just seeing a flower, thinking it's pretty, and picking it to sit in a vase on your table. Truly appreciating a flower has to take into account the miracle of all the things that had to happen to make the flower what it became. It needed sun and bees and water and soil. A lot of things had to happen for that flower to grow.
Or when you appreciate a glamorous photo in a magazine. If you look more deeply, you'll see that you're not considering what went on behind the scenes: the years of practice and training the photographer went through; the struggle of the models to have the right body; the work of the costumers who often put grip clips on the clothes in the back to make them look like they have the perfect fit; the makeup artists who spend hours making people look like they have no makeup on! If you simply look at a photo and see a pretty person, you're missing the hours and hours of effort that went into capturing that one moment in time—creating that one perfect photo.
The same is true for everything we appreciate about our lives.
I’m not saying that everything in our lives needs to be minutely dissected or that we have to spend our whole existence being grateful for everything. Obviously that’s not how we live and it’s not realistic.
But it has been very helpful to me to recognize that I could be endlessly grateful for thousands of things in the universe that make living the way I do possible. And that perhaps it would be useful to spend a little more time being more aware of some of those things.
For example, my house. It's small. It’s not glamorous. But I have a huge amount of appreciation for it. I love my house. Do I wish it had more space? Yes. Do I wish it had more bathrooms? Yes. Have there been times when I was frustrated that we haven’t had the money to repaint it? Yes. Am I sometimes jealous when I visit my friends’ big and beautiful houses? Yes.
And there are times when I have desperately wanted to move. I wanted something better and different. But then I remember that my house is enough for me. I don’t need a bigger house. In fact, a bigger house would be a burden in many ways. And I'm grateful that our house is affordable for us. We don’t have to worry about the mortgage.
I'm also extremely grateful that our house has never had problems with leaks during rain and that the power almost never goes out. And I am grateful for the trees that provide our house with shade. I'm grateful that it provides privacy and that it has a large yard and is in a great location. I'm even grateful that the timing of the people who lived in this house before us was such that we were able to buy the house when we wanted one. It's been a reliable, safe, and comforting place to raise our daughter.
Is the house perfect? No. Am I grateful for the house? Yes. I am.
And sometimes, though it may sound silly, I thank the house. I actively express appreciation for the house because it helps remind me that I do, in fact, appreciate so much about it.
With appreciation, the big challenge is to remember to look for it and feel it. It’s not that you should never get frustrated. It’s not that you should think that everything is perfect. It’s that when there are things in your life to be grateful for, you should try to remember to express that appreciation. And you should also try to remember that appreciation requires acknowledging everything that goes on the behind the scenes—from flowers to photos to people who give you something special.
And now, a couple of questions for my mom.
I’m sure as a person with chronic illness, it’s hard to think about your sickness with appreciation. How do you handle the struggle to not only always think of your illness in a negative way?
I want to start by saying that I thought your essay was profound in the way you suggested we look behind the surface of what we ordinarily think of as appreciation.
I had an experience a few months ago that reminded me of your examples, especially the photography one. I was feeling particularly sick one day, but I had to do a load of laundry. I was sitting on the bed starting to fold the shirts and pants, grumbling because I wasn't feeling good.
I happened to notice that one of the tags said, "Made in Vietnam." I realized that, here I was grumbling about having to wash and fold this shirt, but someone had to dye the cloth and someone had to cut it and someone had to sew it together. Someone working for a pittance probably, but needing the money in order to feed his or her family.
Then I looked at the pants and saw, "Made in Bangladesh." It brought to mind the tragic clothing factory fire a few years ago where hundreds were killed because the building wasn't safe. I hoped that the person who'd had made my pants hadn't been working there.
Just as you asked us to look behind what goes into making a beautiful photo, I realized that, to truly appreciate my clothes, I have to appreciate the people who make it possible for me own them and, just in general, to live the way I do—lavishly compared to them.
I also related to what you said about your house, and this does relate to your question about being chronically ill. When I got sick my universe shrunk. I'm pretty much home all the time. It's led me to notice things about the house that I never appreciated before I got sick.
The house is old—and it's small. There are a lot things we do manually because it wasn't built with modern gadgets (we have no garbage disposal or dishwasher). Before I got sick, I wanted badly to move. This desire was fueled by our good friend Mickey when she moved from her old house (even older than ours) into a brand-new one. Everything in it was new, and she was the first person to live in it. When we'd visited her, I wanted a house like that. Everything clean. Everything new. A fresh start.
Well, since becoming sick, I don't want to live anywhere else. Being home all the time forced me to look deeper, just like you wrote about. Looking deeper I saw that because the house has been here for so long, the foliage and trees have matured and some are so big and beautiful. And I realized that the smallness is an advantage because I can shout to your dad from anywhere in the house and he understands what I'm saying. Also, because it's small, it's a short trip to the kitchen—that's a nice advantage!
Our bedroom is very small because it used to be a porch, so when we converted it into a bedroom, we were stuck with its dimensions. But when we did that, we also added a lot of windows. Now that I spend so much my time in the bedroom, I appreciate how three walls face the outside and each one has windows on it. It's like living in a sunroom.
You asked about the struggle to not always think of illness negatively. It is a struggle, despite all the good that's come from it: I've written books that have helped others; I have a good support system of family and friends; I've developed new interests, such as growing bonsai trees in the bedroom. And, although what I can and cannot do is dictated to a large extent by how I feel on any given day, within those limitations, I have a lot of freedom in my life. So there is a lot to appreciate.
Despite this I would still like to wake up tomorrow and not be sick. I think I'll always feel that way, even though taking away the sickness would take away a lot of wonderful things that came about only because I am sick.
So, how do I get to appreciation? I have a motto (that I didn't make up). It comes from the title of a book by Pema Chodron: Start Where You Are.
In my experience, if you can't "start where you are," you can't appreciate your life because you'll be stuck in a dream world. Your dad and I call it La La Land (and did so way before the movie came out)—meaning living in a dream world. But if you "start where you are," it becomes possible for your heart and mind to open to what there is to appreciate in the life you have.
Some days it's easier to "start where you are" than other days. But the days when I can do it, I remind myself that my starting point is a body that's sick and that it isn't going out today. Then I can start to appreciate what I have all around me.
What do you do when you cannot put yourself in the mindset to "start where you are"?
This is where so many Buddhist practices have been helpful to me, starting with mindfulness—and not just in meditation. Actually, I don't meditate as much as I used to. But I do practice mindfulness by working on being aware of what's going on around me and what's going on in my mind.
So a on day when I'm thinking, "I hate being sick," although I may stew for a bit, mindfulness practice kicks in and I become aware of what's going on in my mind and how that kind of thinking only makes worse me feel worse by turning a difficult day into a disastrous one. Then I say to myself, "Okay, I can't deal with 'start where you are' right now, but that's okay; being sick is hard, and some days I just can't generate that feeling." In other words, I direct compassion to myself. Compassion instead of blame. Mindfulness and self-compassion—two practices that can feel like lifesavers for me at times.
Along with this, I remind myself that some days are going to be tough, and then I rely on the law of change and impermanence to just wait out the mood until it changes or until something external happens that alters how I'm feeling (such as a text from you!).
|Toni's bonsai trees|