From Gratitude to Resilience

Shortly after writing my last post, in which I went on about how grateful I was that I can go running in Spring, I had an  unfortunate run-in with a Home Depot contractor cart that broke my toe.  So much for running.

In fact, even walking had become difficult. Within a few days of my accident, I realized that what I’d hoped was just a minor bruise had not only not gone away but seemed to have gotten worse:  I was now limping along with a swollen toe and couldn’t even put a shoe on without it hurting.  Oh, and it was the weekend, and 70 degrees and sunny out.  Now I was feeling sorry for myself.

So much for gratitude.

We all face setbacks sometimes that challenge our abilities to be the person we want to be. (In my case, grateful.)  A broken toe is pretty minor, I know, but it’s still frustrating not to be able to do the things you’re used to doing, and frankly, take for granted.  And therein lies the problem.

The upside of taking your daily life for granted is that when you lose some aspect of it – your ability to run or walk, for example – you suddenly have a whole new appreciation for it.  But now that I’d lost that – and from what I’m told, it can take 6-8 weeks for a broken toe to completely heal – what was I going to be grateful for?

Well, lucky for me, my partner – who, by the way, was the one accidentally who ran over my toe with the Home Depot cart – suggested I try biking.  That shouldn’t put as much strain on my toe, he reasoned.

I’ve always had a bit of an irrational thing about biking.  As a kid, when I was around nine, I got a bike that was too big for me, and one scary fall was enough to make me swear off biking forever.  From then on, when my friends wanted to ride bikes somewhere, mine was always “in the shop” or otherwise unavailable.  I was terrified to get back on it.

It wasn’t until I was about 18, spending a summer working on Martha’s Vineyard, that I got on my bike again.  It was the same bike I’d gotten in third grade, only now it actually fit me. I was still terrified, but I didn’t have a car and there was no other way to get around the island and get to my job pumping gas at the local Texaco station.  So I had to learn to ride my bike.

A few falls and scrapes and bruises later, I had done just that.  And I loved it.  That summer, I rode to work each day, rode to the beach, rode around the island, and just generally relished the sense of freedom I felt whizzing down the road on a bicycle. I’d had no idea what I’d missed all those years.

When I went back to college, my bike went with me – I eventually replaced it with a better one – and it became my respite:  I’d bike this great 24-mile loop along the Connecticut river, one side in Vermont and the other in New Hampshire, and felt a tremendous sense of both freedom and strength that I remember to this day.

But then I moved to New York City.  My fear returned.  Though there are lots of bike lanes in New York now, there weren’t so many when I first moved here, and still, even now, city biking can be pretty scary:  cars swerve into the bike lanes or just double-park in them, or the lanes are just not in the places you want to go.  So while at times I’ve loved biking in the city, I also tend to find it terrifying.

Then again, when you can’t run, and you can’t walk…  so this past weekend, I got back on my bike.  It was tremendous.  I can get down about living in New York sometimes, but getting on my bike always gets me excited about it again.  On Sunday I rode to Ft. Greene park, and tooled around the surrounding neighborhood of historic brownstones and wood-framed houses on tree-lined streets.  It was just amazingly beautiful.  A few days later, feeling down again that my foot hurt too much to even take my dog to the off-leash hours of the dog park, I forced myself to get back on my bike and ride to Prospect Park.

It was like a miracle.  Instead of sitting home feeling depressed, there I was, flying by the walkers and runners and strollers, zooming down the hills and even making it back up them without nearly as much difficulty as I’d expected.  Four times around, and I’d had an actual workout – broken toe and all.

So I’m back to feeling grateful again:  not for my broken toe, exactly, but for the fact that most adversities, whether they be physical, emotional, professional or whatever, often bring with them new opportunities — to stretch, to test and to grow.  Obviously some are far more difficult than a broken toe.  But we tend to let ourselves get down about even the small daily difficulties, whatever they are:  a temporary illness, a boring job, a fight with a partner or family member.  The challenge, I think, is to find the opportunity in it:  to develop a new skill, explore a new interest, or reconsider your approach to a longstanding relationship.

What challenges are you facing in your life now that might offer some interesting opportunities?  Where’s your bicycle?

The Joy of Being Grateful

fridaysleepingI’m not a morning person. I know some people spring out of bed at 6 a.m. raring to go, but I’m not one of them. I’m the type who slowly emerges from the fog of my dreamworld only to feel apprehensive and a little skeptical about what awaits me in the day ahead.

But that gets old, and increasingly, I’m realizing, it’s a choice. So lately, when I awaken reluctantly and feel the anxiety start to move in, I’ve been choosing another path: gratitude. I know it sounds trite – ‘count your blessings’ and all that – but it’s really true that focusing on what you’re grateful for makes you feel better. It’s scientifically proven. Really.

According to this Harvard Medical School publication, for example, gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” In one study cited, for example, psychologists asked participants to write a few sentences each week. The first group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that had happened that week. The second group wrote about things that irritated or bothered them, and the third wrote about events that affected them, but without emphasizing whether they were good or bad. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude all felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and made fewer doctor’s visits than those who focused on irritations.

If it helps once a week then it’s probably even better once a day, so I’m trying to do gratitude as a daily practice, at least on days when I wake up feeling lousy. This morning, for example, when I woke up cranky, I started thinking about what I was thankful for, over my cup of coffee. It was a slow start, but as I enumerated my gratitude for the coffee, my partner who brought it to me in bed and the sunny spring day outside, I was able to get myself out of bed and put on my running clothes. When I got outside, my gratitude practice really started to kick in – combined with sunshine and endorphins and it’s doubly effective.

By the time I got to Prospect Park, I was pretty much ecstatic:  I was grateful for the sun, the sound of the birds, the magnolia blossoms, and the fact that I can physically run at all. I was grateful I have a job that allows me the flexibility to go running in the morning, and for all the other people out there running with me, who kept me company and motivated me to keep going. This was a lot of positive feeling crammed into just one hour, and all before 9:00 a.m.

Of course, the high from a good run and counting your blessings doesn’t last forever. By 3:00 p.m., my allergies had kicked in and I was tired, and all the bad news in the world and in U.S. politics, which I follow for my work, was bringing me down.

Time to re-start my practice: this time I was grateful I could turn it all off for a few minutes and take a nap — and for my tempestuous little dog snoring soundly beside me.

The Little Engine That Could

Keep-Moving-Confucius-500x500When I read David Sedaris’s piece in The New Yorker recently about his obsession with his FitBit, I thought it was a little silly. Sure, the little black wristband that counts your steps could make you slightly compulsive about your activity levels, but his story about running around England picking up garbage while he clocked 30,000 steps a day seemed really over the top.

Then, on my birthday, my partner gave me a fitness bracelet as a present. I guess I’d expressed interest in them, mostly in the fact that they count your sleeping hours (and quality of sleep) as well as the number of steps you take in a day, and I thought that could be good to know.

Little did I know that once I put it on, I would feel like a little engine had been strapped to my wrist. Suddenly, I had more energy: I wanted to climb those extra flights of stairs I thought were a drag before, and getting off the subway three stops early seemed like an opportunity more than a way to risk being late to a meeting. When I found myself clocking in at 173% of my 10,000-step goal, I was thrilled. David Sedaris was onto something.

I’m not encouraging fitness bracelets or obsessing over how many steps you take each day – though I do believe moving and fitness are really important. But it’s interesting how just wearing a little rubber wristband has changed my activity level – and gotten me to make extra efforts to try to get in 8 hours of sleep. These are goals I’ve set for myself: no one else is counting, or watching, or cares. But it tells me something about the power of setting personal goals, and of having something that consistently calls my awareness to them – even when it involves an activity that in the past I’d pretty much taken for granted.

It also tells me something about the power of perspective: instead of seeing the stairs to my apartment as an exhausting and unfortunate aspect of where I live, I now see them as a fitness opportunity: a chance to boost my step count.

So what if I shifted my perspective on other things in my life, beyond how many steps I walk in a day? What if, for example, when I wake up in the morning, instead of feeling weighed down by the pressures and obligations of the day ahead, I consciously choose to set those thoughts aside and contemplate five things I’m grateful for? Those things could be as simple as my morning cup of coffee, my dog snoring next to me, or just being alive. It’s amazing how quickly they come once you start counting them, and the internal change that occurs from focusing on that gratitude for a few moments. From that mindset, I can set one positive goal or intention for the day – say, practicing patience or compassion. With that goal in mind, my day’s responsibilities are no longer a drag; they’re an opportunity to practice.

In The Buddha Walks Into the Office: A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation, Lodro Rinzler writes: “Knowing your intention for what you do is the difference between schlepping through your life and living a life with meaning.” Rinzler recommends contemplating an intention for the day each morning, and checking in with yourself at the end of the day to see how you did. The idea isn’t to berate yourself if you didn’t follow through, but simply to be aware of what you did, consider how it felt, appreciate your successes and decide whether you want to do something differently next time. The next day is another opportunity. You can write down your day’s intention someplace where you’ll see it during the day to ensure you keep it in mind.

We all need — and can create for ourselves — regular reminders to follow through on our best intentions. And while someone’s making a lot of money off that FitBit idea, our reminders don’t need to involve a hi-tech rubber bracelet.