There is a Buddhist saying that to live in the future creates anxiety, to live in the past creates depression, and to live in the present creates peace. While I agree with this wholeheartedly, I also think that to live in the present is a form of privilege.
When I was working on my social work degree, we participated in this project called “Walk A Mile,” in which we spent the afternoon attempting to live out a scenario given to us that was supposed to emulate the day in the life of a person in poverty. We were given toys dolls for children, told when the work hours were, had to juggle childcare, paying for bills, and emergencies like trying to get to food pantries and avoid utilities from being shut off. Little did the administrators know that when I was participating in this simulation, I was homeless myself, and have a history of homelessness from the time I was very young. At the end of the day, my classmates were able to return to their plush condos and lives in which every need was met, while I spent the night on the street, trying to find a safe place to sleep.
This exercise was designed not only to give insight to the future social worker into the lives of those with whom we would work, but also to establish a feeling of gratitude. There are many different forms of privilege in this world. Being able to remain present is a byproduct of economic privilege. During the simulation and in my personal real life experiences, when you are living paycheck to paycheck unsure of where your next meal is coming from, it is hard to stay present. You are always looking to the future for the next best thing that is going to help you escape the cycle of poverty, or you are simply reacting to what happens around you because you are too overwhelmed to handle anything else. It creates a lot of anxiety.
In my slowdown, I have come to realize that being present is a point of privilege. It is a privilege borne out of economic prosperity. When you do not have to worry about where you are sleeping for the night or how you are getting to work in the morning, you have the leisure to enjoy the moment you are experiencing.
Given this, I have also come to realize that it was in those times when my life was most challenging that I was also the most grateful for the smallest things. I recently came across a gratitude journal that I had kept during my early college years. There were days when I listed being happy that the paper I had written came off the printer warm because it was so cold outside and my hands were frozen from being inadequately dressed for the weather.
I have also seen posts online during the holiday season where people will do a “gratitude challenge.” Post everyday why you are grateful! Don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving for one day; celebrate for the entire season! What happens in the spring and summer when the holidays are over, the living is easy, and the weather is warm? Do we forget to be grateful?
We need to be grateful every day.
Let me say that again. We need to be grateful. Every. Day.
Just as I was able to be thankful for warm printer paper during some of the more challenging times in my life, I need to be just as thankful in the good times in my life.
The way my life is right now, I have never had it this good.
Expressing gratitude allows us to be present because it causes you to pause and reflect on the now. To really slow down, we must look at where we are and appreciate how far we have come. If you are constantly looking in the rearview mirror or wondering what is around the next curve, you are missing the most beautiful things that are right in front of your face. When the Buddhists say that to be present brings peace, they aren’t kidding.
I need to get back in the habit of keeping a gratitude journal in which I am able to identify at least one thing per day for which I am thankful. Even if you are having a “bad” day, there is always something for which to be thankful, no matter how small. Even the days when I was simply thankful that I had enough fare to ride the bus instead of walk in the cold.
To start, I have many things to be grateful for right now:
- Health. Without health, we are nothing. Literally. If you do not have health, you are dead, and that is the absence of life. After many potentially fatal experiences in my life, including lymphoma, multiple anaphylactic food allergies, and other accidents, I can genuinely say that I am happy to be alive. Celebrate your health and the ability to grow old; it is a privilege denied to many.
- Housing. After many years with precarious housing (including growing up – a time when I had even less control of my life), I am thankful that I have had stable housing for the past 6-8 years.
- Food. Do you know what it is like to be able to go to the grocery store and be able to get everything on your list? Let me rephrase that: do you know what it is like to go to the grocery store and have to make difficult choices picking and choosing what is on your list because you have a very limited amount of funds and have to chose between groceries and paying the light bill? I am thankful that the past few months, I can go to the grocery store and get everything on my list without having to choose between, say bread or cereal.
- Friends. I have good people in my life. When the Wonderful Life movie says that no man is poor who has friends, they are right. I am privileged to now have time that I have not had before to be able to cultivate the friendships in my life.
- Family. My family may be small, but without it, I would be nothing. Having family has forced me to find stability in my life as an adult that I did not have as a child. It has forced me to grow up and to evaluate what is really important in life.
- Education. My education has enabled me to escape the cycle of poverty. It has given me the tools to be able to find employment that allows me to meet all my basic needs.
- Opportunity. I am so thankful that I have finally found employment that I not only enjoy, but that treats me well, and gives me the opportunity to slow my life down and enjoy the moment in which I find myself. I have never felt so alive. Having the opportunity at this point in my life to be happy – truly happy – is such a gift.
To be grateful is to take the time to pause and be in the present. To be in the present means to find and be at peace. If you are finding yourself hurried and wondering, “where did the summer go?” on this first day of August, then it may be time to slow down and identify your points of gratitude.
That anxiety you feel is what happens when you are so focused on the future that you do not enjoy the now. That depression you are feeling is when you are so trapped in the past that you are unable to move forward. Be thankful. Get out of the rut and be present here and now.
For what are you grateful?