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Friday, November 30, 2012

Theory of Relativity

Just over a week ago, we were sitting around tables talking about, or hopefully at least thinking about, the things we are thankful for. Family, friends, health, hair straighteners, etc.

Unless you were my husband. If you were my husband, just over a week ago, you came home in a bit of a grumpy mood, tired and excited to just crawl into bed and call it a day.

On that same day just over one week ago, if you were my same husband in his same frown-won't-turn-upside-down spirits, you then received a little talking-to from yours truly. That went something like, "FOR CRYING OUT LOUD, IT'S THANKSGIVING. YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE THINKING ABOUT ALL THE GREAT STUFF IN YOUR LIFE, STUFF THAT SURELY OUTWEIGHS WHATEVER IS GETTING YOU DOWN IN THE DUMPS RIGHT NOW."

And then on that same day, if you were my same husband....all right, enough already with this literary device.

Bottom line: my husband responded to my edict with the following: "I think about things I'm thankful for even on days that aren't Thanksgiving, so I'm allowed to think about things other than thankfulness on Thanksgiving."

I know. What an idiot.

Okay, okay. Of course my husband was right.

Hopefully you all spend more than just one day a year reflecting, however quickly, on the things in your life that you're grateful for. I know I do. I normally try to keep those things to myself, lest I lose more of the few friends I currently have. While I'm no expert, I'm relatively confident that preening about my luck at having fowl-to-table eggs directly delivered to my kitchen counter every morning isn't the best way to earn yourself a friendship necklace.

My internal monologue regularly includes exclamations that could be construed as expressions of thanks: The smile that hits my face when I see my son staring out at me from his crib in the morning. The peace I feel knowing my husband is more settled in our new Maine lifestyle. The heartbeat that skips when I come upon my kids making each other laugh.

Then big things happen. Tragedy strikes, frustrations loom, disappointments set in. And I realize that I should be thankful for even more things than I am already taking the time to appreciate

If those bad things happen directly to me, then I see how lucky I had it beforehand. A miscarriage makes prior failed attempts at getting pregnant seem, somehow, gentler. Juice spills on the couch and I no longer notice the fraying of the seams. My submission to a writing competition isn't selected and low readership on the blog for a few days doesn't sting as much.

If those bad things happen to someone else, then I see how lucky I have it generally: She can't get pregnant at all; I just couldn't get pregnant for a while. They lost their entire home; I can deal with a blemished piece of furniture. He lost his job; I just lost a lark.

I find that if I let myself go really "meta" with this train of thought, I begin to feel badly about ever feeling badly for something that's happening in my life. I feel guilty that I'm sad or disappointed, because someone out there certainly has it way worse.

While that's probably true, it also probably isn't healthy for me to excommunicate myself from the land of the Sometimes Unhappy. The range of emotions is at our disposal so that we can experience them all, at least in doses, and as long as they're not criminal.

But it is also probably true that (a) I should only let myself wallow in the unhappy thoughts to a point; and (b) a sure-fire strategy for bucking up is to consider how lucky I am, even in my disappointments, relative to what someone else is having to endure.

I sometimes struggle with how to feel about that tactic, though. In a way, it seems mature and perhaps even spiritual to take stock of where you (and your problems) stand in the big scheme of things, and proceed accordingly. Self-awareness and empathy are important traits, and practicing them more every day would probably leave to smoother personal lives, not to mention political circumstances (but perhaps less reality television).

On the other hand, it seems to exploit the misfortune of others. To get really philosophical about it, you could argue that you're using someone else's sadness to your advantage by leveraging it to end your own. In so doing, could it be said that you're validating -- or valuing -- someone else's suffering by putting it to positive use in your own life?

Ultimately, I have to believe that's not the proper way to look at it. Indeed, I have to believe the above perspective needs to be shifted just a bit. I have to believe that when bad things happen, there is a lesson to be learned. That lesson could be that we need to pay more attention to climate change or that we need to end a certain way of doing business or that we need to recognize the miracle of good health. By absorbing the lesson in a way that prompts us to better appreciate or lead our own life, I have to believe that we are not taking advantage of another's misfortune, but are instead acknowledging how deep and profound and worthy of attention that misfortune is. We honor the misfortune by learning from it, and by moving forward in our own lives with that lesson in mind.

At least, I hope so.

So today, even though it's not Thanksgiving, I am giving thanks. I am thankful that my worries and sadnesses and disappointments are what they are. Because relative to her or him or them, I've got it good.

And I hope you do, too.

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