December 6, 2006
It is hard to feel gratitude when you are focused on guilt and disappointment in yourself and others.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero, first century B.C.
A woman, whom we’ll call Nancy, responded to my thoughts on Gratitude in the Morning. She said she wanted to be grateful but was “only stressed and worried” about her grown son who didn’t have a steady job and whose bills were piling up. She wondered what she could do to stop and hated the feeling of being “angry at him” and thinking “ill of him.”
This is a not uncommon reaction from parents of children with whom we’re estranged, or with whom we’re disappointed because they haven’t turned out the way we thought they should. (You can see my online book, Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do is Never Enough, for a more complete perspective.)
However, getting swept up in emotions and stress isn’t just a problem for parents. It’s common for anyone who has gotten tangled in a situation they thought would turn out differently than it has. In fact, many unpleasant emotions, from anger to depression, arise from expecting things will be different. Here are just a few examples: You assume your child will return safely from Iraq; instead, he is seriously wounded… . You put your heart and soul into a report the boss said he absolutely had to have on his desk Monday morning, even missing your child’s birthday party. Then you discover on Monday morning that he either ignores your efforts or has changed his mind… . You aren’t selected for the school on which you’ve set your heart… . Someone without insurance runs into your new custom-built car.
You could undoubtedly add several examples from your own experience that results in your being upset for a long time. These are the boulders and potholes that lie in the path of life. You have to learn to get past them. Naturally, some boulders that have rolled onto your path take a bit longer to climb over and some potholes are deeper than you’d like. Yet if you keep your eyes on the goal of living fully and of doing the best you can, you’ll get through that section of rough road and onto ground that is much smoother.
However, there are those who leave their own path and go over to help someone who’s having a hard time navigating a section of their road. This can be a noble thing to do, up to a point. What I’ve discovered with parents of grown children, however, is that they frequently keep a sharp eye on their child’s path, ready to jump in and rescue their child. They want to prevent him or her from experiencing the pain of resolving difficult issues through the child’s own efforts (like getting and keeping a job). It’s not that we have to do everything on our own. But one of the most important lessons in life is the recognition of where our responsibility ends and the other person’s responsibility begins.
What would I say to Nancy to help her extricate herself from the situation? First, I would say, “Step back onto your own path and look past the boulders and potholes. You will find there is beauty all around you. Take a deep breath and allow peace to enter your heart. Share love with a world of hurt and the hurt in your own heart will melt. Express joy in the small pleasures of life and joy will lighten your burdens. And most of all, give thanks for all you have, because without the gifts of nature and the talents of others, your life would not be possible.”
Then I would recommend to Nancy that she say to her son, “Son, if you want to live with the insecurity of not having a steady job, go ahead. I intend to pay attention to my own life. That includes getting on with what I have to do for myself. And what I have to do for myself is to express joy, love, patience, peace and gratitude.”
I believe she will then find that her son will be surprised she’s not hovering in the background with worry and criticism. He may even express disappointment that she’s not offering the help she had previously given. But eventually he will thank her for giving him the space to learn and live as a responsible, mature individual.
Especially if you’ve allowed your emotions to keep you from expressing gratitude, I would like to hear your answer to the following question:
For what are you grateful today?