I stood in front of about 60 people, all off whom were, in one way or another, affected by Parkinson’s disease—a chronic, progressive neurological disorder for which there is no cure—and said that Parkinson’s disease (PD) can be a great teacher and friend. It got awkward.
I realize now that not everyone is ready to hear that. And that is OK. PD sucks. Cancer sucks. Alzheimer’s suck’s. Illness Sucks. We all have our unique way of coping when life delivers it’s blows. There is no right way or wrong way. But until there is a cure for our suffering, we have no choice but to embrace reality-as-it-is and live life to the fullest.
So, if you were at my talk and wanted to slap me upside the head, I don’t blame you. But I invite you to read on as I try to make the case for living well, today, with PD, or any illness. Or complete health—because sometimes it’s you healthy, charmed life livers who really.need the slap upside the head!
Walk in Gratitude and Be Happy
True or false: When you are happy, you are grateful. If you said “true”, think again. We all know people who have everything that it would take to be happy, yet they are not happy. They are not happy because they want something else or they want more of the same. And we all know people who have illness or loss, misfortune that we ourselves would not want to have, yet are happy. If you think it’s happiness that makes you grateful, think again. It’s gratefulness that makes you happy.
What really do we mean by gratefulness? Gratefulness occurs when we experience something of value; something valuable to us, that is given freely to us. These two things have to come together. It has to be something valuable, and a real gift. You haven’t bought it. You haven’t earned it. You haven’t traded it in. You haven’t worked for it. It’s just given to you. And when these two things come together, something that’s really valuable to you and you realize it’s freely given, then gratefulness spontaneously rises in your heart. And happiness spontaneously arises in your heart. That’s how gratefulness happens.
Just to be clear, I am not talking about grateful experiences. We want to live every moment gratefully. We want to walk in gratitude. We cannot begin to walk in gratitude until we become aware that every moment is a given moment. Every moment is a gift, given freely. You haven’t earned it. You haven’t brought it about in any way. You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you, and yet, that’s the most valuable thing that can ever be given to you. This moment, with all the opportunity that it contains, is such a gift! If we didn’t have this present moment, we wouldn’t have any opportunity to do anything or experience anything!
The gift within this gift is really the opportunity. What you are really grateful for is the opportunity, not the thing that is given to you. Because if that thing were somewhere else and you didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy it, to do something with it, you wouldn’t be grateful for it. Opportunity is the gift within every gift. Every moment is a new gift, given freely, over and over again. And the real kicker is this: If you miss the opportunity of this moment, another moment is given to us, and another moment, and another, and another. We can avail ourselves of this opportunity, or we can miss it. If we avail ourselves of the opportunity, it is the key to happiness. Behold the master key to our happiness in our own hands. Moment by moment, we can be grateful for this gift.
This does not mean we can be grateful for everything. How can we be truly grateful for our illness. I certainly am not grateful for Parkinson’s disease. No, we cannot be grateful for the loss of a friend, for unfaithfulness, for bereavement. We cannot be grateful for violence, for war, for oppression, for exploitation. We cannot be grateful for everything, but we can be grateful in every given moment for the opportunity, even when we are confronted with something that is terribly difficult, we can rise to this occasion and respond to the opportunity that is given to us.
Most of the time, what is given to us is opportunity to enjoy, and we only miss it because we are rushing through life and we are not stopping to see the opportunity.
But once in a while, something very difficult is given to us, and when this difficult thing occurs to us, it’s a challenge to rise to that opportunity. We can rise to it by learning something which is sometimes painful. Learning patience, for instance. I know from my own experience that PD has taught me great patience when driving or in line at the market. I understand that the slow driver ahead of me might be elderly or a new driver, or for all I know has PD. PD has taught me great humility and understanding and has shown me the way to great compassion. And PD gave me a kick in the ass! I had an epiphany when I was diagnosed (a topic for another time) and PD was the catalyst! Time was ticking so I got rolling. With PD as my motivator I founded a company that changed the way global enterprises do business. The company itself is a model of forward thinking corporate structure. I had the time of my life running and growing a company that defined an industry. I seized every moment and learned a lot about myself. I volunteered at a soup kitchen, wrote two books, recorded a CD, adopted a son, sailed the Bermuda One/Two single handed race from Newport to Bermuda and back. In some ways the years since my diagnosis have been my best. In other ways they have been the worst.
All I want to say is that those who avail themselves of those opportunities are the ones that we admire. They make something out of life. And those who fail, get another opportunity. We always get another opportunity. That’s the wonderful richness of life.
So how can we find a method that will harness gratefulness? How can each one of us find a method for living gratefully, not just once in a while being grateful, but moment by moment to be grateful?. It’s actually quite simple: Stop. That’s all. Just stop. We rush through life. We don’t stop. We miss the opportunity because we don’t stop. We have to stop. We have to get quiet. And we have to build stop signs into our lives. STOP! Listen to the birds! STOP! Watch the sun set! STOP! Smell a flower! STOP! Taste your lunch! STOP and love! Just STOP and go!
When I was still working I was on the road continually, traveling 100,000 miles a year speaking at conferences, meeting with clients and checking in with our offices around the world. I was on the road more than I was home. My wife was going crazy having to care for our newborn son by herself. We were both self-absorbed, indulging in our own brand of self-pity. While I thoroughly loved what I did it was exhausting, especially with PD. I needed to slow down and remember what really matters. I began putting post-it notes everywhere reminding me to be grateful. In my wallet was a note saying “Josa Gift/Tyler Gift” reminding me to get a gift from whatever country I was in so I could share with my wife, Josa and son, Tyler. I am happiest when those I love are happy. So, when I am grateful for my wife, she is happy. And when I was home I began putting post-it notes throughout the house: at the kitchen sink “enjoy at the flowers in the garden!” On the porch “listen to the birds!” Some of these notes are still up around the house including one on the bathroom mirror that just sways “I LOVE YOU!”
Leave it up to your own imagination. You can find whatever works best for you, but you need stop signs in your life. And when you stop, then the next thing is to look. You look. You open your eyes. You open your ears. You open your nose. You open all your senses for this wonderful richness that is given to us. There is no end to it, and that is what life is all about, to enjoy, to enjoy what is given to us. The sky is still beautiful when you have PD!
And then we can also open our hearts, our hearts for the opportunities, for the opportunities also to help others, to make others happy, because nothing makes us more happy than when all of us are happy. And when we open our hearts to the opportunities, the opportunities invite us to do something, and that is the third. Stop and really do something. And what we can do is whatever life offers to you in that present moment. Mostly it’s the opportunity to enjoy, but sometimes it’s something more difficult.
When you are grateful, you’re not fearful, and if you’re not fearful, you’re not violent, and you are courageous in the face of illness or loss.
When you are grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share.
When you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody.
When you are grateful you can see beyond your pain and be present for those you love and open to receive love from those who love you.