Gratitude is a funny thing. We often talk about it in the context of a glass being half full rather than half empty, and based on the level of that container’s fullness or lack there of, we sit… glass in hand… happy or sad.
See, I think that’s where we the idea of gratitude wrong. I mean who among us hasn’t had our glass mysteriously emptied? Over my career I’ve met many people whose glasses were far from half full or half empty, and yet they persevered. I have often selfishly tucked their memories in the back of my mind. Most of these people didn’t know how much of an impact they had on me, but they did.
So I thought I would share these stories with you.
When Death Seems Like A Blessing
Writing for the West Allis Star, my editor Roger Bartel challenged us to find people who had overcome adversity. I met John from West Allis when he was a senior at Nathan Hale High School in 2007.
John, who was 18-years-old, told me he wasn’t struggling to overcome anything, he was dying. And while many of his peers were just starting to build their lives, his life was ending because he had a rare and terminal disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. I wrote about how he prepared for his death. He wanted an open casket during his funeral to make his mom happy, but he wanted to be cremated in an urn the shape of a race car.
He wanted his funeral to be a party with balloons, cake and music. His gratitude came in the form of the comfort he received in knowing that one day he would die and not be in pain anymore. But his attitude about his reality kept him grounded in the here and now. He spent the year doing what his body allowed him to, but one of the highlights was that he got to meet a race car driver. Almost a year later, John died at 18-years-old and his funeral was just that… a party.
When Pain and Frustration Help You Take On The World
After being laid off from the Kenosha News, I decided that I wanted to write about the mental health system. So many police reports reflected the shortcomings of our current mental health system and that’s how I met Brenda Wesley when I wrote about her sister Betty Cahn for the Milwaukee Magazine. The story solidified what I had always known about the mental health system in Milwaukee County, woefully inadequate but so many clung to the notion that it was better than nothing. At the time, the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex received 12,000 people in crisis and 80 percent of them were turned away.
“Because she’s not laid out on the floor overdosing on meds, and she hasn’t hit anyone or threatened to kill someone, they won’t take her to the complex or do an emergency detention,” Brenda told me.
Over the years, Brenda’s frustration with the system in trying to get her sister help eventually yielded to finding the strength and courage to write her own play called “Pieces,” which aims to cut through the stigma around mental illness, and working with a number of police officers on crisis intervention training. These were her contributions to making the system better by helping the community understand what her family went through.
If What Is Before You Doesn’t Serve You, Choose Another Path
So you might wonder what these two stories have anything to do with gratitude. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that true gratitude is about acceptance of what is happening in your life, and realizing some of it may not be in your control. But with acceptance and gratitude you stop fighting what you can’t change and start taking on what you can.
John couldn’t change that he was dying, but he could accept it and plan for it. He could also free his mind up for other things… like meeting a race car driver. For Brenda, she couldn’t save Betty from her mental illness but she could help the system become more empowered in how they treated people with mental illness.
And those are lessons I think we can all learn from. But the truth about being a journalist is that stories change me all the time and that has always been something I am grateful for.