A few years ago, during a dark time, my then-therapist told me I should start cultivating a gratitude list. This sounded dumb to me, because obviously I had nothing to be grateful for. Everything about my life was the worst; things would frankly be better if I lived in a pit filled with dirt while tiny snakes slowly gnawed at my toenails.
She said, “Try.”
I said, “Fine. I guess I’m grateful that there is a nice loaf of bread in my house.”
“Good,” she said. “And what else?”
“And I love my cat a lot,” I said.
“And what else?”
“And… I’m grateful that I have a bike without any flat tires.”
She made me come up with five things. Honestly, I was surprised it was so easy. And what was more, listing those things actually made me feel good. Ugh. I hated when my therapist was right.
I started practicing the gratitude list every day — I integrated it into my morning pages practice, listing five things every morning, to keep with me throughout the day. I have grown a little attached. When something goes wrong or I start feeling really uncomfortable, I cite the list to myself. “So you got a parking ticket. You also have NICE coffee at home.” I’ve become a total gratitude convert. I’m hooked.
This morning, for example, I made the following list:
- Beautiful weather
- Hannah and Ned
- ALEXIS [Alexis got all caps because, have you met her?]
- Funny guys at the coffee shop talking about sheriffs
- Bee sting
Yeah, “bee sting.” “Bee sting” is not a weird sex thing that I feel grateful for (although maybe it should be — anyone have ideas on what that would be?), nor is it a brand of lip gloss I love. (Actually, it is a brand of lip gloss, I think. But I’m more of a Chapstick person.) By “bee sting” I meant that I got a bee sting. From a bee.
It’s not like bee stings do anything outwardly good for me. Actually, I’m very allergic to them. Like, EPI pen allergic. When I was sixteen, I got a bee sting and my foot grew three sizes and turned black and purple. At the time, I was in this play at the children’s theatre, and they couldn’t get me a larger size of character shoe, so I just had to stuff my mangled, throbbing foot into these tiny little Colonial-style laced heels. After the show, one of the shoes was so stained with blood and pus that the theatre had to “retire” it.
I got yesterday's bee sting in one of the most embarrassing ways, too: one of those instances where you kind of go, “Oh well, yeah, she deserved that.”
I was on a solitary walk at the suggestion of my sister (see item three above), and I got kind of bored. Then I started singing this crunchy little pop song that was stuck in my head out loud. Then I was like, “Oh man, I want to DANCE in this big field of clover.” So I danced, but then I was like, “This dancing is fun, but it would be MORE FUN if I took my shoes off.” I took my shoes off, closed my eyes, sang loudly, and began to dance with minimal inhibition in a sunny, bee-encrusted field. So, in other words, I transformed myself into one of those people you cross the street to avoid having to be too close to.
And then, predictably, I stepped on a bee.
My allergy is such that I immediately felt like I was going to throw up or pass out or some combination. My whole foot swelled to twice its normal size within a minute. I pulled the stinger out and watched the perpetrating honey bee sort of wither mercilessly inside its last moments. His day was a lot worse than mine, actually.
I hobbled over to the bayou and stuck my foot in the water and felt it throb and pulse. I cried. There was nothing I could think about except the pain. And there was nothing I could do about it in that exact moment, either.
That was when I started to feel gratitude.
It is so rare in our busy lives for something to stop us. There is little that can demand our complete, undivided attention; can take us away from everything else we’re planning or remembering or trying to fix. I took the opportunity to think about the bee, the field, my foot, my blood. I was still. It was rare.
It’s been a dozen hours or so since then, and the bee sting keeps reminding me to stop and be present. It is reminding me to keep my feet on the ground (rhetorically speaking; actually keeping my feet on the ground is a little painful) and my head on my shoulders. It is giving me the opportunity to stop and really be with something that is unpleasant, in the simplest way something can be unpleasant. I feel grateful for that.
After all, in time, I won’t have a bee sting. And then this bee sting will have given me the gift of knowing how wonderful it is to not have one.