On being grateful

When I was a teenager and complained about something — the food, the weather, being bored — my mother (like many other parents, I suspect) had a response at the ready: “You should be thankful!” she would say — “there are…” and then she would fill in whatever was required — people starving in Africa, people with muscular dystrophy or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, people who couldn’t see or hear or walk, people in prison, etc. Of course, none of this made me feel any better, because I was a callow youth and arrogant enough to think that I deserved whatever I thought I was in need of (better food, more interesting surroundings, etc.) “I’m not going to suddenly feel better because someone I don’t know is worse off!” I remember yelling.

Now that I am older and wiser (definitely the first, and theoretically the latter) I have discovered a better way to feel gratitude for what I have, and that is to periodically lose it and then get it back. The first thing that made me come to this realization was when I got nasal polyps (benign) a few years ago, and as a result gradually lost the ability to breathe through my nose almost entirely. Have you ever thought about breathing through your nose? Probably not. It’s just something you do, you don’t think about it. By the way, did you know that most people only breathe through one nostril at a time, and it alternates automatically without you noticing? I didn’t either, until recently.

At one point, I had a hard time sleeping, because the amount of air getting through my nostrils was so tiny, but if I slept with my mouth open I would a) drool and b) my mouth would get dry as sandpaper. After I finally had surgery — during COVID, which was quite an experience — the first few breaths I took through my nose were like magic. I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything so simple and so wonderful at the same time. “I’m definitely not going to take breathing for granted any more,” I said to myself — but of course I did. Life goes on! And daily irritations and tasks and interpersonal drama takes over, and we forget about how great breathing is. It happens.

The second realization things I should be grateful for was also nose-related (sorry if noses aren’t your thing). when I suddenly lost my sense of smell — a condition known as anosmia, which I think happened because I got COVID for a second time, although it could also have been a delayed effect from the polyps. I don’t know, I’m not a nose doctor 🙂 I didn’t even realize it was gone at first, it just kind of went away and then at some point I noticed that I was putting a lot of salt on things (because smell is such a crucial component of taste) and when I stuck my nose into a fresh bag of ground coffee, I couldn’t smell anything at all. Nada. This turned out to be very handy for taking out the compost bin, because no matter how badly the food was rotting, it didn’t affect me. Same with dirty diapers from my granddaughter, and farts from the dog. Nothing.

Then, just as suddenly, I started smelling things again. It was like someone flicked on a light switch. On an unrelated (or possibly related) note, I’ve had a chronic cough and sinus problem for the past few months, after having a particularly bad flu. I only mention it because I’ve been blowing my nose about a thousand times a day for months now. Did that jump-start something in the nasal region or in my brain, or did the COVID effect (if it was that) go away on its own, which it has been known to do apparently? I don’t have any idea, nor do I care really. I just know that suddenly, a few weeks ago, I started smelling things again — I wasn’t sure at first, but then there was a hint of perfume here or there, and then it was coffee beans, and then soon it was everything.

This, of course, means that compost and diapers and dog farts are back to being terrible, which, you know, is not great. But I don’t care! I can smell flowers again, and coffee, and petrichor (the smell of the earth after it rains) and it is marvelous. Not to mention food — everything smells great, and tastes even better. Salt intake is way down. And I resolve to be thankful for smells — even the bad ones — forever, and not to take my senses for granted. But I probably will 🙂

The old shack in the woods - Autumn at Long Pond Ironworks State Park ...

Addendum: Thinking about this made me recall one of the most touching stories I have probably ever heard, about a seemingly small gesture of kindness and the feeling of gratitude it sparked. It was a number of years ago, when I used to accompany my elderly mother to a small Catholic church near where we lived. I was (and am) agnostic, but she liked to go and she couldn’t drive. Anyway. there was a visiting priest, and during his sermon he talked about a visit he had made to a very poor family who lived outside of town.

He said he got to know a young boy there, maybe seven or eight, who always said hello, and one day he went by the house where they lived — barely more than a shack, with four or five people sleeping in a single room, and not much in the way of food. The boy said he had been to a barbecue at a neighbour’s house and there were pork chops, and then he reached in his pocket: “Here, I saved you one,” the boy said, handing the priest a pork chop, with grains of sand and who knows what else on it from the boy’s pocket. The boy was beaming.

Just think of it: Despite how poor and hungry he was, this boy had kept a pork chop for his friend. The priest was crying visibly as he told this story — which happened years before — and I misted up while he told it, and I’m getting a little verklempt now if I’m being honest. The priest said he had never been the recipient of such an honest gesture of kindness, and that the gratitude he felt was almost overwhelming. And this is a man who presumbly comes into contact with people who are (or should be) pure of heart all the time.

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