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Gratitude When Times Are Tough

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” -Ernest Hemingway

Everyone goes through tough times. Everyone. What distinguishes the survivors from the thrivers is not the severity of the suffering, but the ability to rise above it. Some people experience profound life losses and find themselves capable of moving forward and finding happiness again. Others become stuck in the mire of their sadness and anger, and don’t know how to pull themselves out. They want their lives to go back to the way things were before, and seem unable to adjust to their new circumstances.

To those people, I say this: the answer lies in gratitude.

As most of you know, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer the summer before I started high school. There I was, entering a whole new world of unfamiliar teenagers and teachers, and instead of starting off with new clothes and a fun, can-do attitude, I walked in with a big red scar on my neck, wearing the ugly glasses I’d shed in seventh grade because a recent cancer treatment left my eyes too dry for contacts. It was hard to find anything to be grateful for in those first few weeks.

But then I realized something. Even though I had that big red scar, no one seemed to notice it. (At least, no one said anything to my face, though they may have behind my back.) While I was in school, I could pretend it wasn’t there; I could pretend I didn’t have cancer at all. I could focus on the things that made me happy: playing in band, doing well on tests, laughing with my friends, and trying new activities, like drama club and the school newspaper.

That became my coping mechanism for all four years of high school. Every six months or so, I had to go through another surgery or radioactive iodine treatment, or both. Sometimes I had to take time off from school and keep up with my homework assignments in the hospital. Sometimes I had to give up extracurriculars (I wasn’t able to be in marching band my freshman year because of a treatment scheduled during band camp). Before the treatments, I wasn’t able to take my thyroid hormone, so I’d spend six weeks becoming progressively tired, depressed and brain-fogged as I went through my days at school.

What I’m saying is, it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t always pretend that my “normal” school-life and my “abnormal” cancer-life were mutually exclusive. But thinking of them as separate entities was what saved me from getting stuck in the mire. Because I was able to be grateful for the good things I had in my life, to focus on the positive at least some of the time, I was able to handle all the bad stuff.

It is true that some people are tested with far greater suffering than others; those people have to work harder to find gratitude. But I’ve seen and heard enough stories of people overcoming extreme losses to know that it’s possible. You just need to take the deceptively simple step of choosing gratitude. Find the people and passions in your life that make you happy, and focus on them. Reflect on them. Increase the time you spend with them. Thank God for them. You do have a choice. You can allow your losses and difficulties to dictate your entire life, or you can decide that life really is too short to be unhappy. 

How do you find gratitude during the tough times?

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This post is part of a mini-series on gratitude. You can find previous posts here:

Three Steps To Greater Gratitude Mindfulness

How Being Grateful For What You Have Can Give You More

Gratitude Book #1: Anne of Green Gables

5 Ways To Say “Thank You

Receiving Gratitude

Gratitude Book #2: The Glass Castle

Gratitude For My 2013 Life

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