Feeling Your Way to Gratitude

As much as I have flown over the years, especially lately, I will never get used to turbulence. Sometimes pilots can do something about it, finding some smooth air; and other times, it is well beyond their control ... there is nothing but rough air to fly through. Nothing.

As much as I have flown over the years, especially lately, I will never get used to turbulence. Sometimes pilots can do something about it, finding some smooth air; and other times, it is well beyond their control ... there is nothing but rough air to fly through. Nothing.

That's the way life is sometimes, and when it is, it arrests me and makes me feel fragile, at least initially.

Recently, on our initial descent into Florence, Italy, I had one such experience. While squabbling with my husband about something that neither of us remember, I suddenly felt the plane drop a few hundred feet, though it felt like thousands, and everything got shaky. I tensed up, went quiet and turned away from him. He kept talking. Really!

'Why did you stop talking?' he asked.

'I am trying to stay alive,' I replied.

'Nothing you can do about that,' he said. 'That is out of your hands.' From my side view, I saw him turn back to his magazine, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

As this bumpy fact of life passed over me, we eventually landed safely. In retrospect, after the initial shock, in those few moments I was reminded again of how quickly life can change, how fragile it is. And as usual this reality put me in a delicate state of mind. There, I find it easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.

No wonder I tend to do some of my best writing and thinking on airplanes. By the time I reach my destination, I am far more grateful for my life, liberties and luxuries.

In this instance, I thanked God to have such a straightforward husband and as soon as we landed, vowed to never argue with him in the air again. Remember, I said nothing about on the ground.

Seriously, however, when life feels fragile, most nonsense, if not all of it, falls away and gratitude for whatever we have sets in, even if it is not what we want or think we deserve. That's what awareness of life's frailty tends to do. Not only does it put one in touch with mortality, it helps to define what is important and what is not.

For example, while driving on a motorway just outside of London, I had a defining experience. I glanced into the rear-view mirror to see a lorry barrelling towards me. The traffic slowed in front of me, so I had to brake suddenly, slowing to a near stop. The daughter of a retired defensive-driving trainer, I looked to my left and right, hoping for a space to move into, though there was a car in front of me that would then take the lorry's impact. Still, rightly or wrongly, I thought of myself, but ascertained quickly that I was boxed in. Thus, I braced myself for what was about to happen but, miraculously, the lorry stopped just short of my car's boot.

Though I felt a calm after the storm quite quickly, I kept recalling that split second when life could have changed, been altered, been lost for forever. When I got to the dentist, I walked into a seemingly deserted space and thought for a moment that life must have left me and somehow I hadn't felt it. I rushed into the bathroom, ran some water, touched the mirror, and stared at myself for a moment. Really, I was alive.

This close call jolted me to loosen the rein on the belief that life is permanent. Furthermore, it made me deeply grateful for life itself. And with this sense of thankfulness, my attitude changed, starting with the dental appointment.

So what if he was twenty minutes late, and so what if he kept me longer in the chair than I had anticipated? Never mind. I was pleased to have the time. Shame, however, that it takes turbulence in a big way to get to this place of appreciation. But it doesn't have to.

Some experts call this feeling of reality a form of vulnerability. American author Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, says that vulnerability is a part of life. 'It's the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable.'

Without feeling, life lacks meaning and purpose. Sadly, however, many people shut down on deep feelings, seeing opening up as a weakness. Brown says nothing can be further from the truth.

Furthermore, we don't have to wait for something unstable, tumultuous to happen to feel deeply. We can step out of our comfort zone and get there without being hit over the head, metaphorically that is.

Sounds reasonable to me, but let's be clear, this does not necessarily mean you have to live on the wild side. It does mean, however, that you might have to take some risks. For example, someone who has a fear of flying might take a plane ride.

But even that might not be possible for some. In truth, there are plenty of opportunities in day-to-day living to step out of one's comfort zone. For example, I would rather not take writing workshops ... ever. Something about them makes me feel like an awkward teenager, trying to fit in, to make the grade or something.

Still, every time I have taken one, with the exception of one or two, I have made new friends, grown professionally and am eternally grateful for it.

Others make phone calls that they would rather not make, go swimming even though they fear drowning, and so on. The point is this: we would all fare so much better in life, fuelled by gratitude, rather than its opposite: thanklessness.

Go ahead, what are you waiting for? That turbulent experience will come soon enough, but why wait for it? All it takes is a small step out of one's comfort zone to lead to that surreal feeling of gratefulness, a sort of euphoria, and a special closeness to life.

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