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The Incurious Habit of Despair

A Personal Reflection on Gratitude

I’ve always been a sensitive person, and have sometimes experienced despair when faced with life's harsher realities. The good thing about being a sensitive person is that it has equipped me to develop empathy for what other people experience. But it has also, at times, led to getting stuck negative emotions, such as despair. I remember, once when I was about 5 years old, I lived in a little house on over an acre of land. I was free to roam and play as I wished. I would pass the days catching bugs, making mud pies, and climbing fences. One day I was playing behind our shed and I climbed up on top of an old canoe that was propped up against the fence, I jumped from the canoe and landed on a rusty nail. The nail pierced through my shoe and about half an inch into the bottom of my foot.

In panic and pain I hobbled back to the house. I stood outside the front door wailing. My mom appeared from the behind the door and I collapsed to the dirt floor of the earth, sobbing, and looked up into the sky, past the clouds, in the vast indifferent blue of outer space. I let out a guttural yell: “WHY GOD? WHYYYYYYYYYYYY? I sobbed on and on and was hardly able to utter a recount of what had happened to Mom. “WHY WHY WHYYYYYYYY GOD, WHY, WHY WHY?” on and on. That day, I really felt like I was going die.

Another instance of a strong reaction occurred decades later just after my 2nd child was born. A few weeks after her birth the doctors found tumors in my husband’s body; they weren’t sure what they were, but there was a strong possibility that it was cancer. He had to go through a lot of testing that spanned about a month. My husband was already a cancer survivor, and I was devastated, thinking that the cancer had returned. In my postpartum state I convinced myself that he was going to be dead by the end of the month. I had visions of his funeral running through my mind, I saw myself dressed in black for the rest of my life, trying to care for my children alone. I turned my rocking chair to a window overlooking the backyard and cried tears of despair over my infant’s body. I didn’t say it out loud, but my heart I asked, “Why God, why?”

I am not sure exactly how but one day, a dramatic shift occurred in my mind when I tried to find a way to have gratitude. We didn’t have an official diagnosis yet, but the thought came to me, I am thankful this cancer scare I am living through because it is revealing the depths of my love for my husband. And then from there, another thought, I am thankful too for this revealing how much I love my children. I felt like the entire world could go up in flames, but I loved my babies so much I knew I could find a way to care for them, no matter what. Out of that gratitude came this understanding of how strong I was. I was still sad and scared, but I was no longer in a state of despair. I still needed the support of my friends and my family, I still had lonely nights, but the gratitude lifted me to a much better place. Eventually, we received the test results, and my husband was cancer-free, but the lesson in coping is one I’ve carried with me through life's inevitable ups and downs.

So often, we know that a more positive mindset can help us with depression or anxiety or difficult life circumstances, but we just haven’t figured out how to achieve those states of mind yet. In therapy, a professional can help you create a safe space to explore darker feelings so that you can learn to better cope and even move past them. A professional can also help to gain insight into what roadblocks exist to living a better and more fulfilling life. In therapy, sometimes clients benefit from learning how to cultivate gratitude. Other times, a client will find something different that is just as helpful.

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