Sunday, I turned 45. I did what you do on your 45th birthday when you want to prove something: I ran 9 miles, I did a bunch of yoga, and then I posted about it on Instagram. Because obviously. Why not post pictures of yourself doing handstands when you are half of 90? There is literally no reason to do silly acrobatics at my age if you can’t show it off and fish for compliments from your friends and family.
In my post, I talked about how lucky I feel to be healthy. I meant it. That feeling of gratefulness has become a strong undercurrent for me lately. I’ve always embraced gratitude as a value, and tried to express my gratitude in various situations. But something is going on lately where I feel gratitude like a burning light inside of me. Like something alive (but not in a creepy way!). In the past, gratitude felt like a shimmery cloud I sometimes walked through, but couldn’t quite touch. Now it feels like I’m holding on to something real.
Getting older surely has something to do with this, because age offers perspective. I have more life experiences to appreciate, and just more in general to be grateful for.
But various other things—let’s call them “events”—have been aiding me along in this cultivation of gratitude. Most of these events involve having to fork out large sums of money for random and frustrating things. One-way bat doors in the attic vents to send the bat colony on their way. A trip to the vet for the kitty who might have a urinary tract infection or might just be stressed out (how could she possibly be stressed out?). And then the one that really got me: the damage done when a spring flew off our trampoline and right into the neighbor’s car, denting her hood and cracking her windshield.
The spring incident happened the same weekend that a spring flew off a trampoline somewhere in England, and lodged itself right into a boy’s back. The image went viral on social media. According to the story I read, after having surgery to remove the spring, the boy is doing very well now and there was no permanent damage. (Also, please don’t worry if you have a trampoline: a spring flying off is actually very rare and it’s a long story why ours did, but comes down to user error; I don’t know why the UK boy’s did.)
All I’ve been able to think about since taking in that cracked windshield and the incredible force that created it from 40 feet away is how lucky we were that no one was hurt. Killed even. Even while reviewing the estimate for the damage—which is roughly equivalent to the cost of flying a family of four to Europe, and not during one of Delta’s flash sales—I feel myself actually smiling. Joyful, almost. Don’t misunderstand me: I feel very bad for the inconvenience my neighbor has to deal with while we have her car fixed (she is lovely and understanding), and it is financially painful. But the gratitude that it’s only property is absolutely overwhelming. It’s a strangely heavy feeling—something akin to a brick on my chest, but one whose purpose isn’t to crush me, but rather, to wake me up.
With every bill now, I seem to slide that AmEx card into the chip reader and think, how lucky. How lucky that I am only paying $475 to the vet because my silly kitty is peeing on some dirty laundry, versus me having to treat my child for cancer.
How lucky that it only costs $600 to shut the door on some bats, versus having our entire home—our entire city—be destroyed by a hurricane.
Our taxes, our phone bill, that field trip for our kid—all of it is nothing but good fortune. I’ve said these things before, but I feel them now. All of my descriptions of this feeling are sort of dumb, because I don’t know how to describe the intensity of the gratitude that’s been coming up for me lately. I know this though: it’s gratitude tinged with fear. I’ve decided that is okay. There is no such thing as purity of gratitude. Gratitude is nearly always the output of something else, whether that something else is finally sobering up to your own unearned privilege . . . or the fear of dying an unhappy person . . . or the terror of an awful accident narrowly averted.
The personal development coaches can quibble about it, but in my view, how you get to gratitude matters less than what you do once you’re here. I’m sure I will keep doing handstands. Obviously. But I must figure out how to reinvest my gratitude in meaningful ways. Though I accept and appreciate its role, I don’t want fear to hold my gratitude hostage. I want to get beyond “thank god this awful thing didn’t happen to me” and onto “here’s the thing I can do to help someone else.” I know a little bit of what that looks like, but I’m eager to use this 45th year of mine to know it more deeply.