By Allan Hugh Cole Jr.
It’s bedtime for our young daughters, Meredith and Holly. They have taken baths, put on pajamas, and brushed teeth. Their mom Tracey and I have read a nightly lineup of books to them. The smell of lavender baby shampoo, lingering on still damp brown bangs that fall just above sleepy eyes, prompts my delight.
All of us sit on Meredith’s bed preparing for the last nightly ritual.
“Ready, Mommy?” Holly asks as Tracey smiles, “…What are you thankful for?”
We then each take turns speaking about our gratitude for what we have and experience.
Challenges to Gratitude
I think a lot about gratitude these days. Three years ago I felt my life more or less had ended with a Parkinson’s diagnosis at the age of 48.
With chronic illness, gratitude can be elusive. When I labor to button my shirt with stiff fingers, or on my fourth night waking up at 2:00 am, unlikely to fall back asleep, it’s hard to feel grateful. When I have painful cramping in my toes and feet—a condition called dystonia and a common Parkinson’s symptom—gratitude remains a distant thought at best; just as it is when my legs feel like they have cinder blocks tied to them as I walk.
Cicero observed, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” As a result, we benefit from practicing gratitude as often as possible, and especially when facing life’s challenges.
Getting to Grateful
How do I get to gratitude?
First, I acknowledge my hardships, including the things I have lost or will never have. It is essential to recognize and affirm what causes pain, disappointment, anger, sadness, regret, fear, or any other feeling that accompanies my struggles. In order to feel grateful, I must first recognize challenges to gratitude.
Second, I have to accept my illness. I don’t live with resignation, but I have to accept my situation as something that has to be, perhaps forever. Going forward, life will be different, but it can still be good. As Michael J. Fox points out, “Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.”
Third, I focus on what I do have, on what I have not lost, including aspects of my life not diminished by Parkinson’s. I also focus on how my life is better by virtue of living with this disease.
I consider how my relationships deepened, values shifted, and priorities changed; how my hopes and dreams morphed into more beautiful and life giving possibilities; how I am graced by new friendships with those in the Parkinson’s community.
Finally, I recognize hardships more severe than mine. Never would I hope to benefit from someone else’s adversity or despair. In fact, I want to be a source of comfort and joy. But when I pay closer attention to others and empathize with their struggles, I often find that my own difficulties pale in comparison. I acknowledge that “it can always be worse” and for some it already is.
Practicing the Refrain
When gratitude eludes me, I ask myself, “What are you thankful for?” Then, I look at what I have, or could have; at what enhances my life, relationships, sense of purpose and meaning, ability to support others, and new goals. I consider the abundance with which I live.
Oliver Sachs, a renowned neurologist, pioneered the use of a drug called levodopa, which remains the gold standard for Parkinson’s treatment. Learning he had terminal cancer, he wrote the following, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
I think of these words often, grateful that my own privilege and adventure continues.
Allan Hugh Cole Jr. is a professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. A version of this piece appeared in PDWise, a blog that seeks to be a hub for sharing personal stories, experiences, and wisdom gained from living with Parkinson’s.