This “uppy” cartoon suggests that the very people and life events that challenge us are our greatest teachers. Rather than running away, or striking out, we can sit in the middle of our anger, resentment, or fear, and let it transform us for the better.
Obviously, if the person or situation is physically harming or abusing us, or threatens to do so, we must distance ourselves. Boundaries are compassionate. The Attitude of Gratitude is reserved for instances where we feel we have no choice about the matter (we feel powerless) or we sense that we’re contributing to the problem. Somewhere deep inside, we recognize that it isn’t just “them” hurting/tweaking us, but a complex interplay, where we have some measure of responsibility. In such instances, if we’re willing to sit with our uncomfortable feelings and bow to our “enemies,” we can learn much from them.
The Attitude of Gratitude takes a special kind of bravery. It challenges us to take an up-close, honest look at our behavior and limitations. But the upside is worth it! By owning our part in a problem, we take back our power. By acknowledging that every drop of water contributes to a flood, we set ourselves free.
Here’s an example from my own life.
I used to commute 30 miles a day in a gas-guzzling old Volvo. Usually, the traffic moved along all right, even during rush hour. But sometimes it slowed to a crawl, for no apparent reason.
When this happened, I sat at the wheel and fumed. I turned on the radio, checking to see if there’d been an accident. I drummed the steering wheel. I squirmed in my seat. Often, I spun up some version of the following fantasy: I’m going to miss my scheduled class, I’ll be seen as a slacker, I’ll get fired, I’ll lost my home, and I’ll be destitute, lying in a gutter with a cheap bottle of wine.
It was a repeating pattern of thinking and behavior, and though it made me miserable, I couldn’t see a way out. I viewed traffic as the enemy, and I felt powerless and afraid.
One day, though, after reading a book by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron, I chose an Attitude of Gratitude instead. I bowed to the traffic, reframed it as my teacher, and asked for its wisdom.
This is what it taught me:
- Traffic is unpredictable. I could reduce my “traffic stress” by allowing more time for my commute. (Duh!)
- I was choosing to live 15 miles from where I worked. I was free to move closer to the University and be free of traffic altogether. In fact, I had colleagues who lived just across the river, within walking distance of the campus, and I liked the neighborhood.
- I could take public transportation. Instead, like so many others, I was choosing to drive alone in my car, contributing to the traffic congestion, not to mention pollution and global warming.
- I could ride my bike. In those days, I was a long-distance cyclist. There was a near-empty bike path connecting Davis CA, where I lived, to Sacramento CA. It was 23 miles each way, but I was fully capable of making the journey at least two days a week, getting great exercise in the bargain.
- I was holding myself to a ridiculous, unattainable standard: a faculty member who never missed a class.
- I was more worried about what my colleagues thought of me than living an authentic life.
Admittedly, my behavior and thought patterns didn’t change overnight. Nor are they likely to do so for anyone trying to break ingrained habits. It’s hard work. But over time, by engaging with traffic as a humble student rather than a helpless victim, traffic worked some amazing magic:
- I live three miles from campus.
- I commute the short distance on surface streets, behind the wheel of an all-electric Nissan Leaf.
- I’ve entered the Faculty Early Retirement Program, disengaging forever from a toxic environment where overwork is the measure of a person’s worth.
- I’ve started a new career as a children’s book author and artist, living a fully authentic life for the first time.