This is a 20 minute talk about how people find meaning in their own suffering without relying on supernatural or religious explanations for it. If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, try skipping through the first half. The last 5-10 minutes is where this talk gets really good.
Andrew Solomon acknowledges that you can do this while still being really angry about what happened. You don’t have to say something is at all ok in order to find meaning in it.
Here is where I disagree with Andrew. I understand why he focuses so much on the circumstances that have spurred people into doing amazing things, but the former is much less important than the latter. This is a minor quibble with an otherwise invigorating talk, though, and I suspect that he’d agree with me if we were sitting down to dinner. It’s hard to compress this kind of worldview into such a short amount of time.
Today I’m participating in a synchroblog on small kindnesses to help Fiona Robyn celebrate the release of her new book.
I was 11 years old the first time it happened.
Pain blots away the past and future. There was only one moment that had ever existed and it was wrapped up in an intestine-curling, breath-stealing, sweat-beading illness that swooped into my life without warning.
Eventually an elimination diet helped me realize that my body was having serious issues with milk products. The less I ate dairy products the better I felt but rural Ohio in the 1990s was not an easy place to have food allergies.
There were few milk alternatives back then and even fewer people who understood that people with food allergies aren’t being picky.
Enter Mrs. C., my computer science and word processing teacher. At the end of the year she was also a chaperone for a field trip I went on with a dozen classmates. On the way home she treated us to ice cream. There was nothing on the menu I could eat so I quietly didn’t order anything.
She noticed right away and asked me why I wasn’t eating. I told her about my allergy and she grew quiet.
The field trip was on a Friday. That following Monday she called me to her desk at the end of class and gave me some colourful sticky notepads. She said she was sorry I couldn’t have ice cream but that I deserved some kind of treat.
I was so touched that she’d thought of me and gone out of her way to be inclusive.
Even all these years later her kindness makes me smile.
A new reader recently found this blog by searching for this phrase. It’s a great question, one in which is just as applicable for people who live far away from or haven’t formed a close or healthy relationship with their extended family.
My family moved several times when I was growing up. For four years we lived on the opposite side of the country as all of our extended family members. When I was a teenager we often ended up attending three or four dinners in order to visit everyone over the holidays.
As an adult I decided to move to another country in order to marry the man that I loved. His parents and siblings don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas so most of time we’re on our own. In other words, I have quite a bit of experience celebrating holidays with and without extended family.
It was a little lonely at first but now I’m perfectly content with our two-person holidays. As much as I love travelling to the U.S. every few years over Christmas there’s something to be said for a quiet day at home on the off years.
The trick is to figure out what makes you happiest. Do you want to be alone over the holidays? Is spending time with one or two other people your sweet spot? Or maybe you want to squeeze as many friends around your dining room table as possible?I can’t answer these questions for you but I can offer up a few concrete ideas as you make plans for the next six weeks:
Go commune with the trees. If the weather is nice go for a long walk. Even in the winter nature is full of surprises and there’s nothing I love more than disappearing into a quiet park, desert or forest for a little while to see what it has to offer me today.
Find people in the same circumstances. Trust me, you are not the only person who will be celebrating alone or only with your nuclear family this year. If you need someone or several someones with whom to spend the day pay attention to what your coworkers, neighbours, fellow volunteers or acquaintances say over the next several weeks.
Start a new tradition. Make your favourite meal. Volunteer somewhere. Pop a fresh bowl of popcorn and rent the least (or most!) holiday-related movie you can imagine. Go see what restaurants are open in your city. Play board games. Stay in bed all day with your significant other – what you two do in there is no one’s business but your own. 😉
Try something new. This tip depends on where you live but here in Toronto there are people from so many different cultures and religions that most holidays are not actually universal. Some areas of the city shut down on Christmas. Others are so heavily populated by groups who don’t consider it holy or special that December 25 is treated just like any other day. Restaurants in these neighbourhoods remain open and provide a wonderful opportunity to try new dishes.
How are you planning to celebrate the holidays this year?
This past year or so has been quite the roller coaster ride. Drew and I have moved twice, had several relatives become seriously ill, said a permanent goodbye to two extended family members and dealt with a host of other life challenges.
This quote is one of the things that pulled me through some tough times. Even when I couldn’t possibly imagine how things would turn out ok…they eventually did.
The roughest waters seem to be behind us for the moment. I don’t know what lies around the next bend but I’m so grateful for everything we do have – each other, friends and family who stick around through thick and thin, enough money to pay the bills, and a warm, safe roof over our heads.
This Thanksgiving will be a quiet one. We won’t be participating in any of the traditional festivities. I’m not a fan of many of the foods one typically serves at Thanksgiving and neither of us feels the need to cook a big meal. Maybe we’ll start a new tradition instead?
My regular posting schedule resumes on Thursday. In the meantime Happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian readers and happy Columbus Day to U.S. readers. May your day off include everything you like and nothing that you do not.
Ok, time’s up. I hope you were able to find plenty of opportunities to express gratitude to all of the kind people in your life.
Now let’s take this a step further.
Think of someone in your life – a friend, family member, coworker, neighbour, or acquaintance – who really irritates you. This works better if it’s someone you see fairly regularly. (If you genuinely cannot think of anyone the rest of us will be happy to loan you one of ours. 😉 )
Once you have someone in mind, keep an eye on them. They will almost certainly once again do something that really pisses you off.
This is a good thing. Keep watching.
What are you looking for?
Something praise-worthy. Everyone has one of these moments sooner or later.
When you find it, thank them using as specific terms as possible. Don’t just say, “thanks.” Say something more like, “I really appreciated it when you ____. It means a lot to me when others do that. Thank you.”
Keep watching them. When it happens again, thank them again.
What I don’t expect you to do:
Spend more time with them.
Feel like a bad person for finding X and Y so annoying.
All you need to do is genuinely thank them when they do something you appreciate. (It would be interesting to hear what their reactions are for those willing to share that sort of thing in public, though.)
I’m off to take my own advice. This is a much easier thing to preach than to practice, after all!
Your challenge today is to express gratitude. I don’t think feeling gratitude is something most of us have to practice. Almost every time the topic has come up organically with friends or family everyone says that they’re grateful for all of the good stuff in their lives. But I do think that we often have… Read More
Several days ago the air conditioner broke in the house Drew and I are staying in. By Monday afternoon the combination of high temperatures and humidity made it feel like I was inhaling warm, bland soup instead of air. The combination of smog, a heat wave and being exposed to more outdoor allergens due to windows… Read More
An announcement before we dig into the marrow of today’s topic: This is the one hundredth post at On the Other Hand! I’m so proud to have reached this milestone. Thank you all for reading and leaving comments over the last seven months. The next issue of my newsletter comes out Friday, March 18. It… Read More
Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. – Aldous Huxley “It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?” – Anne Shirley Happy Thanksgiving to my fellow Canadians! Celebrating… Read More