I come from a long line of worriers. My predecessors raised this obsessive activity to an art form, even worrying retrospectively when they felt the situation warranted it. My great aunt Gladys was a master at it – worrying aloud that I’d driven through a thunderstorm to visit her when there I was sitting right before her eyes, a little damp maybe, but safe and sound. My own inherited propensity towards worry notwithstanding, even I could see the idiocy. Nevertheless, this insight into the uselessness of retrospective worry did nothing to deter me from going full throttle with prospective worry about pretty much everything – from big stuff like how make a living to insignificant stuff like what I should wear to a party.
In her stunning Netflix doco The Call to Courage, Dr Brené Brown revisits the fascinating concept of foreboding joy, something I’d previously thought was exclusive to chronic worriers like me. Apparently though, foreboding joy is a thing for 90 percent of all adult humans and it goes something like this. Instead of allowing ourselves to bask in a moment of joy – like witnessing the utter peace of a sleeping child or taking that refreshing first dip in the sea when summer arrives – we ‘rehearse tragedy’. Faster than blowing out a birthday candle, we flip from the joyous moment to prospective worrying about harm coming to that sleeping child or being attacked by a shark in that perfect blue ocean. It’s as if this expectation of tragedy will help us bear the loss, pain and trauma we know is on the way should we have the temerity to feel joy in the first place. But here’s the good news – there is an antidote to the rampant foreboding joy condition and it’s really easy to apply.
According to Dr Brown’s research into vulnerability, the people who allowed themselves to feel joy had no fewer painful events in their lives than those of us who worry when the joyful moment presents itself. The only thing that differentiates the joy embracers from the joy foreboders is, you guessed it – gratitude. Now, I’ve been a devotee of gratitude for some time but I confess it took me a good 40 or so years of being worn down by worrying to discover it. BTW – I’m also just a bit proud of myself for stumbling on this insight before having it confirmed so starkly by Brené Brown’s research.
I can pinpoint several instances where the active practice of gratitude literally saved my mental and emotional bacon. Like the time I gave thanks for a compassionate obstetrician and the plethora of good people who rallied around to help me get through the trauma of a second trimester miscarriage.
Or being thankful for the hitherto unacknowledged blessings of food on the table, a roof over our heads and at least one bottle of gin on the premises when we were traversing the dark path of having our company put into general administration.
To my amazement, taking the time to say thank you in these vexing situations was a most effective salve to my hyper-anxious soul. This technique came in really handy six years ago when I received my original breast cancer diagnosis. Getting the news that you have a life-threatening disease requiring truly terrifying treatments is a cluster-feck of dread. Expressing gratitude in each and every fearful moment was the only way I kept myself from spiralling out of control and downing every bottle of wine we had in the house. But in the six years, one relapse and countless anxious moments since that original diagnosis, I’ve been gently guided to understand that gratitude can, and should be, so much more than a mere fear-buster.
Prior to contracting cancer, when I emerged from the pointy end of a ‘crisis de jour’ but still wanted to continue using gratitude to keep a lid on life’s daily anxieties, I only gave thanks for the good things. This was anything from having the wherewithal to purchase a coveted pair of shoes to having a happy marriage and healthy children. Don’t misunderstand me, dear readers – expressing gratitude for the good stuff is a very enriching activity that should be encouraged. However, my worrier’s DNA somehow conned me into thinking that if I didn’t obsessively express gratitude, God, the Universe or insert-name-of your-deity-of-choice-here would see fit to take any and all good things in my life away from me.
Given my aforementioned worrisome disposition, you can see how the technique of using gratitude to manage day-to-day anxiety somehow morphed into a gateway to more fear and worry. It also became a personalised rod for my own back, one that I’d frequently beat myself with if I faltered in my commitment to practising gratitude.
And there was something else too, that hairy old chestnut of judgement. Things that happened to me were quickly categorised as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – the good receiving a gratitude gold star and the bad met with refrains like ‘that sucks’ and ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ For a while there the first verse of Vince Jones’s ‘Don’t worry about a thing’ almost became my mantra:
“If this world is driving you to drink. You sit around wondering what you should think. Well I have got some consolation; I’ll give it to you if I might. I don’t worry about a thing ‘cos nothing’s gonna turn out right.”
A catchy tune to be sure but an effective, positive affirmation? Not so much. Nevertheless, in 2019 – a year where the world seemed to lurch from bad to worse with each passing news cycle – one could be forgiven for thinking that Vince was actually onto something!
And so it was, dear readers, that halfway through the year just past I hit the figurative wall. Most likely I was suffering a cumulative trauma response to 11 rounds of chemo and the indignity of several bum-cheek injections. Or perhaps it was the result of last May’s general election when Australian voters responded in spades to a campaign of fear, greed and misinformation? Then again, it might have been the increasingly shrill calls from the accountants to close down my baby publishing enterprise because, they were convinced, it would never make any money.
Whatever the triggers, there was so much to worry about that my gratitude practice started to look like a game of Whack-a-Mole, smacking down one fear only to have another, often bigger one, rear up and take a swing at me. I felt like I was swimming in a sea of negativity. Beautiful, well-intentioned people kept telling me how shitty my cancer relapse was and how awful it must be to know that the chemo was only controlling the disease, not curing it. And then there’s the seemingly endless and escalating ‘maintain the rage’ outpourings on social media about all the crappy things going on here and in the wider world. I had serious misgivings about the number of times I clicked the angry face icon on Facebook, enough to almost drive me off the platform altogether.
But desperate times call for desperate measures, right? So, I decided to do something radical and, most would say, completely counter-intuitive – I started saying thanks for everything, not just for the ‘good’ but for the ‘bad’ too. And why not? I was certainly desperate enough. The positive things in my own life and the lives of many others seemed to be diminishing at a rate of knots, while the bad stuff was on a perpetual loop, just like those irritating boomerang thingies on Instagram.
I also came to the realisation that I’d forgotten three really important spiritual lessons I’d learned before and after my cancer diagnosis:
Like attracts like – Everything in the Universe, seen and unseen, has its own vibrational frequency. Go ask Albert Einstein if you don’t believe me. The point is that similar vibrational frequencies tend to attract one another and group together. Ipso facto, living on a frequency of fear, worry and negativity actually attracts more fear, worry and negativity. Who really wants that? Wouldn’t it be better to try and elevate one’s own vibration a higher frequency in order to attract nice things like love, joy and compassion? In spiritual circles, being grateful is touted as the #1 way to move yourself up the vibrational scale in order to achieve this.
Newton’s third law states that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For everything that happens that we perceive as negative, there is always an equal and opposite positive, even if we can’t see it at the time. Getting cancer sucked big-time and yet without it, I wouldn’t have been guided into doing something I truly love – writing these blogs and publishing the work of other wonderful authors. But that realisation wasn’t immediately obvious to me. It revealed itself after I’d lavished gratitude on every aspect of the whole blooming scenario, whether ‘bad’ like the diagnosis itself or ‘good’ like the cornucopia of compassionate and skilled healthcare professionals who came to my aid and the many gorgeous floral arrangements I received while in hospital.
I know it’s wildly counter-intuitive to suggest one should actually express appreciation for things that are clearly negative, but here’s the thing. In my humble experience, being grateful for the inexplicable bad stuff actually allows the ‘equal and opposite’ positive reactions to emerge, perhaps not immediately but always eventually.
Stop with the judging – In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra names and shames judgement as one of the peak impediments to peaceful, prosperous, potential-filled lives. Humans are constantly defining things as good or bad, right or wrong, a problem or a solution. Chopra even vaguely suggests that there are no such things as problems, only ‘happenings’ that we perceive as problematic. That’s a bit of a stretch for me because having a Prime Minister who thinks it’s a good idea to take a family holiday in Hawaii while Australia burns is clearly a problem. However, at just such a moment when I’m judging whether something is good or bad, I’m comforted by the words of positive thinking pioneer, Norman Vincent Peale:
“Every problem has in it the seeds of its own solution. If you don’t have any problems, you don’t get any seeds.”
A potent assertion to be sure but it doesn’t address the elephant in the room as I write this post.
By now, many of you dear readers are probably wondering how on earth a spiritual concept like gratitude could even begin to address the massive problem of unprecedented firestorms currently raging across our country. Well, the short answer is, I don’t know and I am certainly not professing to have all the answers like some latter-day guru. And as the good Dr Chopra also said,
“Walk with those seeking truth… run from those who think they’ve found it.”
I can only tell you that being grateful for everything while looking hard and long for things to be grateful for, has been a game-changer for me as I endure protracted treatment for my cancer relapse. It’s also taught me to be more conscious of my reactions to the things that befall me and to be more patient in allowing potential solutions to emerge.
Nevertheless, for those of you who are interested in how I use gratitude to assuage my worrying heart when it comes to overwhelming things like bushfires, may I humbly offer the following:
- I give thanks hourly for our brave firefighters and the good people who coordinate and lead them.
- I give thanks that we have the technology, like the Rural Fire Service ‘Fires Near Me’ app, to provide sufficient warning and keep more people safe.
- I give thanks for the fact that the effects of climate change in Australia are now present and undeniable. I pray that only good can come from that.
- I give thanks for the fact that while this land may burn, our community spirit, compassion for those affected and hope for much better in the future is not consumed.
In addition to all this thankfulness, several times a day I take a moment to mentally send love and light to any and all people enduring the unimaginable at the moment.
As we turn the corner into 2020, I’m leaning pretty heavily on gratitude as the conduit for more peace, joy, love, kindness and compassion in my own life and the lives of all my dear readers.
Bless you for sticking with me.