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Thankfulness and Gratitude

The English language has a penchant for having overlapping words – different words that mean the same thing. Given the recent Thanksgiving holiday, one is left to ponder what the difference is between being thankful and being grateful.

I’m not sure what the Webster’s definition is but I’ve always boiled it down to this – you are thankful for what you’ve been given but you’re grateful for what you have. For example, I’m thankful for my wife’s love, but I’m grateful for my wife. A different way of looking at it is that I’m thankful for the turkey and all the trimmings I ate yesterday, but I’m grateful that we had the wherewithal to prepare such a feast.

There are certain things in life that are there for us regardless of what happens – the love of our parents for example or the beautiful world we live in. I’m grateful for those things. There are things that are precious to us that are gifts however and I’m thankful for those things – the presence of friends or my wife’s superb mushroom gravy.

I’ve never been able to really say I’m thankful for being in good health. Health is something you have – nobody gives it to you, unless of course you’re talking about somebody who works out and watches what they eat. Those people have earned good health but a certain portion of health has to do with the hand your dealt. Some people are born with genetic issues that make them sickly or prone to certain sorts of ailments. A friend of mine was born with Type I diabetes and has dealt with those issues all her life, for example. She is grateful for days when her diabetes isn’t an issue.

My family has had a particularly difficult year, with illnesses, unemployment and death. Still, there are plenty of things to be grateful for. We still have, after all, each other and the world we live in. We are thankful that we have much to look forward to – a trip to China, a visit from my sister, perhaps a trip to Toronto for the Film Festival. The point is that even though times have been hard, there are plenty of things that are on the horizon that bring a smile to my face.

At this time of year, sadly, there are a lot of people who feel neither thankful nor grateful. Their lives have become so hard and so painful that they feel there’s nothing on the horizon but more of the same – loneliness, stress and despair. Some of them may feel like there’s no way out for them but the final way; a sure way to end pain.

If anyone reading this is feeling even a glimmer of what I just described please take to heart the following – there is always something to look forward to. There is always a way out. Giving up and taking the easy way is the only sure way of ensuring that there is not. Hope can be a hard thing to come by in a world that can be cold and cruel, particularly to the lonely, but it is there.

I’ve been where you are. I’ve felt the things you feel. I’ve been so full of despair that I wondered why on earth I existed at all other than to be one more meaningless number in a long ledger of failure. I’ve even at a couple of times during my life, considered ending it all. I won’t say that all of us think about it at one time or another but I know that I did.

I’m not saying your feelings aren’t valid or genuine – of course they are. However, the fact that you’re feeling this kind of pain and have felt it for a long time doesn’t mean you will feel that way forever. If there is anything constant in life, it’s this: nothing is constant. Everything changes sooner or later. Things can get better if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Sound hard? It doesn’t have to be. Start small. Do something simple to make things better – clean your room. Open a window and let the sunshine in. Play a happy song. Don’t have a radio? Sing one.

I used to be extraordinarily shy. In some ways, I still am – when there are phone calls to be made, Da Queen is usually called upon to do the calling. I can be pretty open and outgoing with people I know and care for but left to my own devices with strangers I can get tongue-tied, particularly with women. Meeting girls was painful for me in high school and college, even when I was a young man. I was shy and awkward and had about as much confidence as a barbecue restaurant has salads. I wanted to have girlfriends and be social but I couldn’t get out of my own way. I was lonely and lost.

Things would get worse after my father passed away. There was so much unresolved between us that it began to eat away at me. I began to truly hate myself, not quite to the point of cutting myself like some teenagers will do – I’m far too much of a physical coward for that. Instead, I did things to punish myself. I turned down opportunities to socialize and be happy. I hid from the world, believing the world wanted nothing to do with me.

The odd thing was I was a rock critic at the time and spent a lot of time at concerts and in bars and clubs. To look at me some would have thought that I was okay; I’ve always been a fair actor. If you’d taken a look inside my head at the time, you might have been shocked and alarmed. There was so much repressed emotion, so much self-loathing and I couldn’t talk to anybody about it, not even my family…especially not them. I couldn’t stand for them to know that I was in such pain, especially since they all had their own issues to deal with.

Those repressed emotions and the self-hatred began to fill me up and as with any bucket you put a garden hose into with the water turned on, if you don’t empty these things from inside, it begins to overflow. In my case, there were physical manifestations; panic attacks, nightmares and stomach aches. I really was beginning to lose it and eventually I had a breakdown of sorts.

I was presented a choice at the time; I could allow things to continue as they were, in which case I would be unable to function for much longer, or I could go talk to someone about it. I chose the latter which was a huge step for me. I started seeing a therapist and began talking about all the things that bothered me.

It wasn’t an easy process and it wasn’t a quick one. I was in regular therapy for nearly two years and continued seeing my therapist on a monthly basis for another year thereafter. He never prescribed me any anti-depressants – he didn’t believe in them except as last resorts and I’m glad to say, I got by without them. Today I am as reasonably well-adjusted as can be expected of a human in a world that is not terribly rational. I still wrestle with my demons from time to time but for the most part they don’t have any big finishing moves anymore.

The point is that I did get out of that place; things did get better for me. It took a good deal of willingness to change on my end, and also a willingness to let people in to see the real me. To my utter shock, they didn’t laugh, they didn’t run, they didn’t feel pity or disgust. Mostly, they reached out and hugged me, if not physically then at least emotionally.

These days I feel obligated to return that kind of emotional support. I realized that I wasn’t going to make it left to my own devices – that’s what had gotten me in trouble in the first place. I needed people, friends and loved ones, to share in the healing process, to help me carry my burdens. Sometimes even total strangers would chip in, taking a pound or two off my load. That’s why I can’t turn away from people in pain. When I ask someone, even a casual Facebook acquaintance how they’re doing, if they say “not good,” I drop what I’m doing and give them my full attention.

For those who are feeling lonely, depressed or ignored, don’t wait until it gets so bad that you have to do something drastic. Talk to somebody. If you don’t know anybody, drop me an e-mail. I’d be happy to give you an ear and a virtual hug.

So I am truly thankful for every one of my friends, and for everyone, friend or not, who read this confessional. I am grateful that I am still around to be able to return the favor. If you need something to be thankful for – or grateful for – let’s see if we can’t find it together. I know we can as a matter of fact.


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