Most of us aren’t raised to see the silver lining, the blessing in disguise, the pearls in the mud that are always before us. We live in a society that values instant gratification and usually complains about anything less. I was no different. Like most people, I used to indulge in the normal kinds of negativity and loved a good trip on the Complain Train where I could bond with other passengers over all the things in the world that had somehow done us wrong.
Then I had an experience that changed everything for me. To the outside observer, it may not seem like that a big deal, just a near miss, but inside of my own head and heart, a seismic shift occurred.
Driving in Southern California can test the patience of even the most mild-mannered people. Holiday traffic makes it even worse. A few years ago, on the 4th of July, I was driving on the Grapevine section of the I-5 with my son and a dear family friend in the car. This portion of freeway has a significant grade and been the site of many massive multi-car pile-ups. Traffic was crazy. We were boxed into the middle of the multi-lane road with a big rig in front of us and nowhere to go when I pressed on the brakes and felt nothing but air. My foot sank all the way to the floor of the car. Instantly my body went into crisis mode. A sharp shard of mother fear for my son and our friend cut into my chest like an ice pick. I could physically feel the collision coming as I stared at the big rig’s brake lights in front of me. My hand hit the hazard light button, hoping no one else would crash into the back of us, as I shouted out for everyone in the car to brace. Then suddenly, miraculously, an opening cleared out beside us. I slipped into it without missing a beat. Then another opened up. I slipped over again. I made it all the way over to the right and was able to coast safely down an exit ramp where I could make a controlled stop using the parking brake on the shoulder. My heart was beating through my whole body and my hands shook as we jerked to a final stop, but we were safe. No one got hurt.
When you experience a situation like that, you can react to it in one of two ways: with anger or with gratitude. I could have started cursing at the car, the manufacturer, the mechanic, the freeway, the traffic, the world. Or I could be grateful for everything that just incredibly went right to keep us from the accident that felt inevitable mere moments before. I chose gratitude. We all came out of it safe and alive. When you see not only your own life but your child’s short life flash before your eyes, and you all get out safe and sound, there is so much to be grateful for.
After this experience, I found myself being grateful for working brakes every time I pushed my foot down and the car slowed the way I always took for granted before. I felt grateful for the wide shoulders on the side of the road where a disabled vehicle can pull over safely without endangering others. I was even grateful for the roads themselves, smooth and paved and well maintained.
The shift in perspective didn’t stop there. This experience helped me to feel grateful for the clean, water that pours out of the faucet every time I turn on the tap. And the technology that so many of us complain about on a daily basis, the miracle of picking up a phone the size of a tarot card that has more computing capacity than whole rooms of computers did just a couple of decades ago.
Here in the US, the kinds of problems that most of us complain about can be considered “rich people problems” when compared to those in less developed parts of the world. Even people who feel like they don’t have much here, are still better off than so many others. Just having access to sanitation, clean water, and some kind of shelter, not to mention public education to better ourselves and help us get on track to a better life, makes most of us lucky beyond belief when compared to the kinds of challenges that so many others in the world are faced with daily.
In short, from this experience I learned how to feel grateful for even the smallest underlying blessing. In the years since that experience I started a daily gratitude practice, consciously noticing and writing down several things that I am grateful for each day. It is a small action to take but the effects are wide-ranging, like ripples in a pond. It has affected not only my career as a psychologist and matchmaker, but it has also affected my relationships with family, close friends, and helped me to meet and fall in love with the love of my life. Now when it seems like something is going wrong, I pause to think about all of the things that are always going right, just under the surface where we don’t always notice them. The amazing thing is that when I am grateful for all of those things, the solution to the new problem almost always presents itself. Sometimes immediately. And that gives me even more to feel grateful for.