Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Power of Gratitude

My good friend's wife killed herself this week. Unbelievable suffering has been created by a woman who dedicated a large portion of her life to alleviating suffering. She was a school nurse, a hospice nurse, owned a coffee house where a community of people found comfort and respite. We will all miss her terribly, my friend most of all.

What can you do with the anger at such a tragedy? I know it's normal, but I really don't like feeling so... icky. The Torah actually teaches us not to be angry. The Gemara says, "There is nothing left for the angry person except his anger " (Kiddushin 40b-41a) There is profound sadness at what she did, but there is also anger at what she left behind. How could a woman who was so kind, compassionate, giving, and loving do something so selfish? That is the true tragedy of a mental illness. Her ability to see her effect on the world and how much others loved her was distorted and warped until all she had was doubt and pain.

One blessing in this situation is that while I am close enough to understand and support, I am distant enough to keep my ability to function. The suffering of her family and friends has been difficult for me to bear this past week. My anger was building, until two nights ago. I was having dinner with her family and her niece said, with a choke in her voice, "She suffered from this for forty-two years. Thank you, Aunt Jean, for sticking it out that long." And in that moment I was transformed.

To find gratitude in your lowest moments gives you a light at the end of the tunnel. It gives you something to cling to when it seems as if the difficulties of life will swallow you up. It is one of the only things that can shift our thinking from something dark and destructive to something uplifting and life-affirming. When we're grateful for everything we have, the magnitude of our recognized blessings takes up all the space in our heart, leaving none for things like anger, envy, and selfishness.

When the first plague was brought about in Egypt, G-d told Aaron to strike the Nile with Moses' staff. Why not Moses? G-d didn't allow Moses to strike the river because it shielded and protected him as an infant, and this was his way of showing it gratitude for saving him. I love that story- it shows us how deep and wide our gratitude can reach.

I'm clinging to that gratitude right now, and I can feel the anger knocking. I don't want to let it in. I keep thinking about it over and over, and this tape runs in my head: Thank you, Jean, for sticking it out as long as you could- long enough for us to meet and for you and your family to become a part of my life. I will be grateful for the time we had together.