What does it take to make us grateful?
I heard today about a group that puts on what might accurately be called “Homeless Camp” for kids to experience what homelessness is like. The kids are outfitted, just like homeless people would be, in donated (usually secondhand) clothes and footwear, given a blanket and 80 cents a day, and they sleep in a public park. They eat in soup kitchens, which may or may not also provide limited restroom facilities. These 14-16-year-old kids, of course, do have “camp counselors” looking out for them but, essentially, they are living as homeless people do. Talk about your experiential compassion learning! And, not surprisingly, the kids report being a lot more grateful for what they have in life after completing the experience. I guess you could say it’s a gratitude immersion experience. I’ve had one of those myself that made lasting impressions on me – both positive and negative. I’d like to share a bit about how the Happy LIFE helped me flourish today, as I continue to navigate the aftermath of my own immersion experience.
In my case, nearly ten years ago, a terminal cancer diagnosis and surgery – followed within four months by another major surgery – created a major immersion experience in my life. If there’s anything that anyone out there who has had a medium-to-major medical condition knows, it’s this: from the time of discovery to the end of treatment, treatment becomes your whole life. It’s all you do – doctors, tests, scans, procedures, examinations, preparations, follow-ups – and eventually, treatment for the condition just takes over and becomes the sum total of your existence.
I can’t adequately express my awareness of – or my gratitude for – how fortunate I was that my cancer was not as advanced as it was initially believed. I’m also thankful to have greatly benefitted from (then) state-of-the-art procedures performed by highly skilled surgeons. Still, the whole experience left me feeling marginalized, patronized, utilized and, yes, sanitized on more than one occasion. There was precious little humanity in it. Dignity was in short supply in the medical marketplace, too.
Except for one shining beacon: Dr. Johanna Whalen. I have used her real name so as not to protect her from my appreciation. I am still likely to cry at the very thought of how much she meant to me, in treating me like a person who had feelings. Moreover, she treated me like a person who was capable of asking intelligent questions and educating herself enough to form valid opinions about treatment options.
Flash through the intervening nine-plus years to the present and you find a woman who had yet to discover another doctor who actually seems to like people or, perhaps even more challenging, to like me, especially as someone whose opinions are based in vitalistic (or, more accurately, a “neo-vitalistic”) philosophy.* Let’s just say that I’ve been like a little lost duckling who imprinted on Dr. Whalen and who has been looking and looking for another one just like her.
Today, I am feeling very grateful – like a little duckling – to have finally found a doctor who likes people and who, to all appearances, likes me. We made jokes, we traded mild barbs about the recommended wellness exams and tests that I’m not convinced are necessary or helpful and, wonder of wonders, she even let me keep my clothes on while we met and got to know each other a bit. At this point, I am willing to believe she is so saintly that she will not die but will descend bodily into heaven.
I think that my newest doctor is indeed different from most of my old ones and, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I’m different, too. More accurately, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I did something different today. Because my previous medical immersion experience left me with more than a little stress at the thought of breaking in new medical professionals to me and my “stuff,” I knew that I needed to find a new approach to medical visits. So, while I was sitting out in the waiting area, I decided to practice the “happy habit” of meditation. It had already occurred to me to do it in the preceding day or two – so I guess I’d steeled myself a bit against the self-consciousness I felt at the thought of meditating in public. Plus, I’m kind of old so it’s easer to not give a fat rat what people think.
Here’s what I think happened: In true vitalistic fashion, meditation allowed me to express a more authentic version of myself by helping me remove the interference of anxiety. By meditating, I was able to put a bit of space between me and the stress I was feeling. It helped me stay in the present and keep out of the future where anxiety, fear and doubt live. Seth Godin, social marketing guru, “define[s] anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.” I’m thinking that meditation may be the antidote – and gratitude may be the reward.
*I’m using the terms “vitalism” and “neo-vitalism” a la Life University (www.life.edu) to refer to a philosophy that honors the wisdom of life. It’s a view that respects both birth and death – along with the life that happens in between them – as natural processes that nature has been developing over millions and millions of years. As a vitalist, I prefer the most conservative, life-respecting and life-affirming choices in health care. In short – I trust that, when it comes to running itself and healing, my body is smarter than I am. It knows when and how to run a fever. It knows how and when to make new cells to heal. And, when something goes awry, it’s usually from some interference that is preventing my body from operating as it’s designed to. My vitalistic view suggests that I always start with the most conservative intervention option, addressing disease and/or dysfunction by identifying and removing the interference(s) to my health – with the least invasive option – before going to more radical or invasive options.