Gratitude is “the quality of being thankful and/or readiness to show appreciation for and the ability to return kindness.” The notion of gratitude is inherently positive. However, to practice gratitude we must also have a deep empathetic understanding of just how bad things can be or get. Every bad situation can be made worse. This can be referred to as “negative forecasting,” but it’s intention is to actually increase appreciation of the present. For example, my daughter broke her arm at camp over the summer. No parent wants to receive a call to learn that their child has been injured in an accident, and worse, not knowing to what degree. When they called, they didn’t say it was broken, just that she fell and hurt her arm. The unknown was maddening. Ironically, an hour before this call, we received a call from the nurse informing us that she had been stung by a bee while swimming. So when the second call came, and I saw the caller ID before I answered, I was definitely guilty of my initial reaction being, “Toughen up kid! It’s only a bee sting. You’re not allergic to bees.”
The entire drive to pick her up was a worry spiral, trying to think of the worst case scenario. “It’s definitely broken.” That thought was countered by, “It’s probably not broken.” When I arrived at camp, she was there waiting, in a makeshift sling and looking pale, puffy-eyed, and worn out from pain. Her arm was swollen and curiously C-shaped. She’s a trooper though, and was in good spirits on the car ride despite every bump causing her discomfort. Like the jackass I am, I attempted to make a joke with a layer of perspective wrapped up in it. “Bet that bee sting doesn’t seem so painful now, right?” She shot me a “you’re kidding me” death stare before breaking out into a knowing laugh.
I think we both knew her arm was broken, but remained hopeful that the X-rays would come back negative. They didn’t. A spiral fracture of her right humerus. (Insert, “there’s nothing humorous about that” comment here) Then, the doctor suggested a scenario I hadn’t yet considered. He said, “It’s a bad break. We get broken wrists and elbows all the time, but this, we only see this about twice a year. I don’t think she’ll need surgery though. She’s young and her body will likely heal itself just fine.”
Surgery! I never considered that she might need surgery! The situation could have been worse. On the way home, my daughter was in good spirits, and actually somewhat excited about getting a cast. We had a great conversation about perspective. I explained to her that as a parent, I never want to see her in pain, but I’ll take a call any day that she broke her arm – that she just broke her arm. Because the reality is that, on that very day, there were likely hundreds of parents receiving calls about their children that were far worse. She also learned the valuable lesson that pain is relative, and joked about the bee sting again. Luckily, up to this moment, the worst physical pain she’d felt had been a bee sting, or perhaps a shot at the doctor’s office. How fortunate for her, and for us as her parents. When you consider how bad things can actually get or be, it’s not an attempt to channel the spirit of Eeyore, it’s not pessimistic or cynical, it actually allows you to be appreciative. It’s a way to practice gratitude.