Gratitude after the fire

A few months ago, a friend of mine awoke in the night to the smell of smoke. She yelled for her partner and together they got their three children, one still a small baby, out of the house. As they looked back, they saw smoke all around. The fire fighters said they thought they made it out with about thirty seconds to spare. They were in bare feet, underwear, and too little clothing for the cold night. They lost everything they owned.

As I heard about this, the story touched my own terror. It made me think of how I would feel if I lost everything I owned. The fire had spread from the neighbouring house. How would I feel about the person who started it? Would I be angry? Filled with anguish and despair? Overcome with the challenge of rebuilding and finding a place to live in the meanwhile? Grief over all the mementos lost?

I don’t think any of us can know how we’d feel in this situation, but I know how my friend and her family have reacted: a beautiful, deep, overwhelming sense of gratitude. The mother/grandmother of the family puts it this way: “I breathe in and breathe out fall on your knees gratitude that everyone is ok.”

I reached out to the woman, this mother of three who is suddenly without a home, and all she has to offer is gratitude that her kids are safe, gratitude to her friends, family, and community who have come together to quickly raise clothing, funds, and other necessities to get them through this time. All I get from these people who have a right to be bitter is gratitude and more gratitude.

I’m really touched and inspired by this family of strong and courageous women. They would be forgiven for being grouchy, angry, bitter, resentful, jealous, spiteful, and hardened by this. They would be justified. But they are choosing to focus on the positive that comes out of bad situations. What a gift that is to themselves and those kids, who will learn about grit and resilience from this. They will never forget this time.

Many of us might be walking around feeling grumpy, angry, bitter, and we might feel justified in that. We might have real reasons to feel that way. However, for many of us, whatever it is that we are dealing with also likely has a positive side. The more we can focus on that, the more we can grow in our positivity and resilience, the better the outcome for ourselves and the people around us.

I say this with our community in mind because I know a lot of people who are Humanists struggle with gratitude. We may think, “to whom, exactly, am I supposed to be grateful?” People who believe in the supernatural force often called God have someone to thank, and someone they can believe made any good things happen, or has a plan for when bad things happen. This isn’t my belief, but I really do try to practice gratitude daily. I am not grateful to God. I am grateful to the world, to my family and community, to my children, to myself, for the beauty and joy that I find all around me.

There is lots in my life that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful or joyous. I spend a lot of time commuting. I really hate sitting for long periods of time and I really dislike driving, and yet I spend about ten to fifteen hours a week exactly this way. Sometimes on my commute I’m dealing with weather, or aggressive drivers, or construction, none of which is wonderful. When I find myself in this situation or other unpleasant ones — someone being hurtful, an unexpected and expensive home repair, all of the things that fill our lives and can make us angry or unhappy, I try to ask myself: “what is awesome about this?”

I don’t like driving but I get to listen to audiobooks and podcasts that stimulate me. Someone says something that hurts my feelings. What is awesome about that? They are letting me know something about myself that I can confront and perhaps help me grow. They are letting me know something about them that can heighten my empathy (mean people are usually just angry or fearful themselves), or can help me know who in my life is truly trustworthy and good for me. Something in my home breaks? I’m lucky to have a home, and people in it who I love so much, and these instances are small inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.

The more I practice this intentional form of gratitude, the more I am able to let go of the feelings of negativity more quickly and more fully. Frankly, it’s a better way to go through life. I am working on my own resilience. I can be too cynical, too grouchy, too judgmental. That isn’t great for the people around me, and it isn’t great for me. I want to be a force of light and positivity for others, and the best way to be that is to feel lightness and positivity within.

Humanistic Jews have the wisdom of both Judaism and Humanism to draw from, and there is lots in both about becoming the best version of oneself. I see it as a Jewish responsibility to take care of myself and to take care of others. In the Hebrew bible and Talmud we are told to honour our parents, love the stranger, and respect our bodies and health.                                                                                                        In Humanism, we are told that the cosmos is chaos, and so whatever good there is on earth is ours to create and enjoy. We believe life is limited to our time here, thus it is short, so we might as well find a way to see the good in it.

I am not asking you to keep a gratitude journal, take up meditation, or stop and ask yourself “what is awesome about this?” every time something goes awry. However, I’ve tried all of these things out and believe that some kind of practice of gratitude, which will help foster an overall attitude of gratitude, is a good thing to do. Gratitude helps us experience joy more fully, and helps us minimize the damage of fear and pain. Gratitude can strengthen relationships (think of the impact of someone pointing out all they appreciate about you! We tend to focus on only the things we wish we could change). Gratitude can make us healthier, happier, more giving, more gracious. If you’re a Humanist who has felt excluded from a practice of gratitude because you don’t believe in anyone pulling all the strings, recognize that the puller of strings is you, and you deserve to feel proud and grateful for all the good you create.

I’m grateful to you for reading this. Please like, comment, or share to let me know how this resonates with you. What are you most grateful for?