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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Discovering gratitude in the unlikeliest of moments

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

We were sitting together on the couch, doing what can – in times of juggling schedules and bickering over chores and the nagging minutiae – feel like the most harmonious part of our family life: watching TV.

Our son had been telling us that he wasn’t feeling well. Still, we weren’t prepared for the instantaneous tsunami of vomiting that followed – on the rugs, on the floors. The poor kid was sick as could be, and we had a big mess on our hands.

Which brings me to today’s subject: gratitude.

I’ve written about thankfulness, and some of the science around it, in years past on this holiday. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests gratitude is a more or less learnable trait. If you force yourself to express it, this research suggests, you can actually experience it, foster it, grow it.

On one level, this can be a fairly simple, straightforward exercise and a lot of us will engage in that exercise today, counting up our blessings. My life is full of very obvious, blatant goodness and this is true of most of us, I think. This is not to say that many of us don’t also suffer, face challenges, struggle to live the life we seek. But on balance, the abundance and ease of the average American life in 2018 is a marvel and it’s surpassingly easy to simply list the reasons we have to be thankful.

But isn’t there more to it than that – than being glad we’ve got love in our lives along with nice things and happy moments? Wouldn’t real gratitude go deeper and include an accounting of the good against the bad? Isn’t real gratitude a way of being thankful for everything – every part of it, up to and including the unexpected volcanoes of illness that seem to ruin the evening?

Which is a question that brings me to King Lear.

Lear, as you probably know, is the tragic Shakespearean monarch who unwisely divided his kingdom among his three daughters in an attempt to compel their adoration and then went mad on the moors.

It is a spectacularly bleak and powerful vision, a king stripped to nothing and buffeted by an existential storm. His experience does not call the term “happiness” to mind, and yet that’s just the subject that a University of London drama professor, Bridget Escolme, took up in a recent essay in the August issue of medical journal The Lancet on Lear and “the politics of happiness.”

Escolme’s essay focuses largely on the changing social meaning of “happy” and “happiness” that you can see in the play. For a long time, to be happy meant – more or less – to be merely lucky, Escolme writes; but the meaning has evolved into something over which we have more control.

Deep into the play’s action, when he’s out on the moors mid-storm, Lear rages and rants and alternates between making no sense and making deep, profound sense. He encounters a beggar, Bedlam Tom, who is really another character fallen deep into misfortune.

Escolme writes about the way in which the play – and particularly a recent performance of the play by the actor Simon Russell Beale – provides scenes of relief for Lear’s madness through interacting with Bedlam Tom.

Lear’s in bad shape, but Bedlam Tom is worse.

“Lear gains momentary relief from his misery through ceasing to focus on himself and identifying with those less happy,” Escolme writes.

In other words, if Lear has something to teach us about happiness, Escolme argues, it is that you don’t find it in trying to make yourself happy. You find it in forgetting yourself.

This is an interesting thought on a day when a lot of us will examine our own happiness through the lens of our selves, finding our reasons to be thankful in the things that please us most.

Which brings me back to the couch and the kid’s sickness.

There’s a lot that makes me grateful about my family and my life. And there’s a lot that makes me – at times, in moments – annoyed with life, as well. Grouchy at the ways it interrupts my selfish comfort.

I get great joy from raising my son, who is 11 and for whom we are older-than-typical parents trying to keep up. I don’t get great joy from cleaning up after him when he’s sick.

But what I’m trying to hold in my mind as true this Thanksgiving is the fact that, of all the things I should be grateful for in my rich, full life, the moment when my wife and I were forced to jump off our comfortable couch, and compelled to stop watching whatever we were watching on our enormous television in the middle of our warm, well-fed lives, forced to take to the needs of this person who we care about more than anything else – that moment is also one whose impact we should appreciate.

We weren’t naked on the moors or anything. But we were yanked out of our selves and into consideration for another, and that, too, is reason for gratitude.

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