By Renee Martyna
When I first came to Bali, ‘practicing gratitude’ was the spiritual discipline I probably felt most resistant to; the idea of writing a daily gratitude list reeked of an anesthetizing self-help culture, or worse, pollyanna-like denial.
I scoffed accordingly.
I never once considered that I was actually ungrateful. I had all kinds of other adjectives to identify with instead, my favorite and most flattering being that I was a “realist”, who prided herself on being “discerning” and “rigorously honest”. My lack of discernable gratitude was partly due to where I had come from. In the time before Bali became my home (which my husband and I now lovingly refer to as the ‘pre-salad days’) I was an aid worker who spent much of my 10 year career in countries devastated by economic collapse, civil conflict or natural disasters. There was a lot to be cynical about in those years, and like most of my colleagues I wore my world-weary sarcasm like a badge of honor; it showed that I had done my time in the proverbial trenches of a fallen world… and by the way, what are you doing about that from your meditation mat, mister? You may wonder where, and what, that attitude got me in the end (if it’s not already obvious). And the story is not unusual for those of us who have recently immigrated to the island. By the time I came to Bali I was burnt out; emotionally, physically and spiritually exhausted, battling a mind that was obsessively self-critical and nursing a stomach that had been raked over with multiple rounds of anxiety and antibiotics. Many of my relationships– where they existed with any degree of true intimacy– were strained. And while my bank account was full (oh yes, those were the financial days too!) my heart… that place that once harbored more than it’s fair share of dreams… felt empty. What was there to be grateful for in that? I could hardly imagine how appreciating the color of the flowers or the taste of a well-ripened mango could turn the tide on a history of hard knocks.
But it did, and here’s how.
First things first: I stopped letting gratitude-filled people make me feel like beefing grateful is easy (you know the ones, obsequiously prancing around smelling the sweet air and opining about sunsets) because even the neuro-scientists will tell you genuine gratitude is hard work. Like most people, grand sweeping vistas and financial
windfalls will make me happy— no problem there. It’s recognizing the smaller victories in life that proves most challenging; so patience, and the stolid determination never to compare myself to others, has paid off. Here’s another trick: start with something real. If I don’t actually feel grateful, I don’t pretend that I am. If that means that the only thing I am truly grateful for is taking my sweaty bra off at the end of the day, or flipping my pillow around to the cold side, so be it. I doubt I am the first person who began their journey into gratitude with the thought that I survived another day.
Lastly, I learned to appreciate the subtle difference between denial (oh dear! I am stuck in a pile of sh*t, let’s play around a bit, it does not smell that bad!) and choosing the most empowering interpretation of the truth (wow, I am stuck in sh*t, but complaining about it won’t do much to change it, so I will save my energy for the shovel and look forward to a shower). I discovered that even the worst situations had something worth appreciating… like friends who believe in me when I can’t, or a random Balinese motorist giving way to my car after I have been stuck in traffic for an hour.
With time I became grateful for the tragedies in life too. For me, these moments are still hard-won, and demand a special combination of time, humility, and a willingness to surrender my directorial position in life for a seat in the back row of the film called “How things should turn out for me”. Accepting a chronic illness as a way to heal my past, for example, is not something I invited into my life, but I can see how it makes me better able to help others, and the dividends for that are priceless.
When I can suspend my judgment just long enough to remember that gratitude is coming (eventually!) it gives me the breathing space to be curious instead of self-righteous. That makes me happier, healthier, and a whole lot easier to live with—just ask my kids! I still can’t make sense of civil war or the travesties of modern slavery, but now I know that lamenting them ritualistically does nothing to change them either. Much better, methinks, to focus on the solutions rather than the problems, and preserve my energy and sanity in the process.
I recently accepted a 30 day challenge to stop complaining—zero tolerance!– and am still stuck on day one. But I am counting the fact that I finally realize just how frequently, and uselessly I actually complain, as progress…. And I am grateful for that.
Renee Martyna is a recovering aid worker cum global Knowmad married to a serial social entrepreneur. Together they are reinventing their lives and their work in a way that better reflects their values while raising two Third Culture Kids in Ubud, Bali.