We aren't getting out of here alive

We are all going to die. Every single one of us. No matter our faith or lack thereof, we all know that one day, our physical self will eventually cease to be. I am a primary school teacher and a co-founder of a small mental health social venture for children, their families and teachers. We pride ourselves on being playful. Why then talk of death? You don’t see: remember you are going to die alongside our other invitations to show kindness, move your body, sleep, connect with people etc

Checklist poster - take care of your mind

To answer this question I feel the need to borrow the words from Leigh Sales’s incredible book: Any Ordinary Day:

“There’s really only one lesson to take from all of this and that is to be grateful for the ordinary days and to savour every last moment of them. They’re not so ordinary, really. Hindsight makes them quite magical.”

Ah Leigh Sales, how spot-on you are. Gratitude… we hear about it, we know it’s good for us, and yet it can sometimes be a tricky one to feel authentically. Without practice, it may seem unnatural and slightly awkward in a butt-clenching way to acknowledge all that is good in our lives. Yet the payoffs can be huge when we flex our gratitude muscle. At schools, we invite students to be still for a moment, to breathe and to picture the people and animals they most love. We then ask them to look at one of their hands and silently name something they appreciate on each finger. We tell them, this is your superpower, your hand is always there to remind you that no matter what may unfold in a day, there are things to feel thankful for.

Research on gratitude highlights the practice as being pivotal to thriving in life and a key component to building resilience. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude from the University of California. Amongst a mountain of positives for why it helps us to be thankful are a few that stand out.

  1. You can’t feel jealous and grateful at the same time. They’re incompatible feelings. If you’re thankful, it is impossible to resent someone for having something that you don’t. Let’s face it; nothing good comes from jealousy. Look at Shakespeare’s plays! “Jealousy is a curse…. beware the green-eyed monster”. Ah, poor Desdemona… Mostly being thankful involves relating to the world in a very different way from forever feeling you don’t have enough, are not enough and look to others with envy.

       2. Gratitude allows us to celebrate goodness instead of adapting to it. Whether it be your partner, your friends, your health, the clean air etc., it is human nature to take these things for granted — yet if we tap into appreciating them, we open up the celebration aspect. It is essentially an affirmation of goodness; this DOES NOT mean that life is perfect. What it does mean, however, is that you can see all of those things AND still identify an amount of goodness in your life.

3. Gratitude challenges not just our negativity bias but also our SELF SERVING bias. This allows us to be liberated from taking all of the credit when things go well and blaming others when they don’t! As Emmons puts it: “With gratitude, we are able to acknowledge that other people gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

As you read this you may be thinking: I know all of this. How on earth do I actually authentically practice it? Yes I know I should feel thankful for my safety, my passport, my legs that work, the food in my fridge, the beautiful sunset, clean water etc but right now I am frustrated as hell by a work colleague or ruminating about a friendship challenge, and I can’t help but think if I had__________ (insert possession/body wish/sum of money, opportunity) then I would feel _________(insert positive emotion.) This is a trap, and it is one we are all capable of finding ourselves in. It is known as the IF and THEN illusion.

To be clear: as mentioned in point number 2, gratitude is not about being a Pollyanna to all of the pain, suffering, stress and sadness of life. It would be counterproductive to positive think your way out of painful experiences. Instead, the point of practising gratitude is that it challenges us to notice where we are putting our focus. In schools, we invite ten-year-olds to turn off the lights and shine a torch only on one thing. We then ask “Just because you are focusing on the chair right now, does that mean that the tables have disappeared?” Perhaps the tables represent good friends in your life, a gorgeous dog you like to pat or the feeling of the sun on your face. The chair still exists, but not in isolation of everything else that makes up the fabric of life. I guess gratitude offers an opportunity to balance the scales a tad. So yes, feel frustrated, get angry, be sad by all means but try and do it without a sense of these feelings being an injustice. Gratitude challenges our notion that somehow our lives would be better without all of the messy, uncomfortable, sad and stressful ‘stuff’.

The challenge persists of how to authentically celebrate the very things we have adapted to and take for granted? Perhaps the first step is to make time to go slow. As adults, this tends to be the part we battle with. Generally speaking, we speed through life. There is a vibrancy to this, but there is also a risk that we miss the ‘ordinary’ moments.

At a recent parent workshop, I read all of the participants a stunning picture book by Tai Snaith, called Slow down, world. When I announced I would be doing this, I could sense a shuffling in seats. The story I started telling myself was that everyone was thinking “I don’t have time to be read a children’s book”. Quite possibly, this was true. Yet each page touched on a simple benefit of going slow, and by the final page, I could sense that the message was resonating. My invitation following the book was this: exercise, by all means, take your child to the things that light them on fire — soccer, judo, drama, art, whatever! See friends on the weekend AND carve out slow time. Because here’s the thing: WE ARE BUSY, we respond to how are you with… ‘busy’…. we rush our kids, we rush ourselves, and we rush the beautiful, extraordinary ‘ordinary’ moments. The moments that if we stop and notice switch us out of adaption mode to celebration mode.

So the death connection?! I call on the late and wise Oliver Sacks to help me articulate this:

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and an adventure.”

And IT IS an enormous privilege to be alive. What are the chances?! We are not getting out of here alive, this is the moment, and this is the absolute gold of authentically feeling thankful: it brings us back into the present. Into the actual celebration of this magical mundane moment — those ordinary moments that Sales so articulately says: are quite extraordinary with hindsight. So my invitation to you: where in your life can you start celebrating what you have? Where can you reframe what you have adapted to — your partner, your job, your home, your gorgeous dog, and celebrate its existence?

Loving - switch from adaption to celebration

Perhaps it starts with merely challenging the things we tend to complain about. E.g. the juggle of work and children. This is a discussion my partner and I return to from time to time. Not everyone gets the opportunity to do the juggle. If this makes your skin prickle or eyes roll maybe it starts with simply doing this: When, over the course of this weekend, can you sit on your sofa sans phone and just watch your children or loved ones? Or as Brene Brown invites us to consider — what if you started believing that people were doing the best they can? How would that view alone shift your appreciation for the people around you?

Still rolling your eyes? What if a gratitude practice helped you to let go of needing to be in control of everything? Because there is a central theme of gratitude which encourages us to accept life as it is and still be grateful for what we have. Vashti Whitfield, a resilience and mindset expert and speaker, shares much insight and good humour on this topic. Vashti generously offers up wisdom from around the world on being here now and making a choice to create the life we wish, this is perhaps my favourite invitation of hers:

“If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that you should tell people how important they are to you. Not because they could leave at any moment but because they’re here now, and it’s worth saying something”

I recently read The Subtle Art of Not Giving a FU*CK, where the humorous Mark Manson speaks of the liberation of coming to terms with our own death. Manson believes that when we become comfortable with this, we can then live by our values more freely. While the title of this blog is a reminder that we are all going to die, I am not convinced it takes being comfortable with our death to live by our values. Yet I do like the idea of deciding on your values and behaving in a way that mirrors this.

This is because I believe a significant cause of the unhealthy stress we feel as parents and teachers is when our values do not match our actions. Let’s say you value playfulness and humour, yet you find yourself in a class where you need to set strict boundaries and continually reinforce rules. Doing this 5 days a week, 4 terms a year takes a toll. Or perhaps as a parent, your core value is kindness, and yet you find your patience tested daily by a 2-year-old who is holding your entire household emotionally hostage. Knowing your values and living by them can be a beautiful reminder in any heated moment to be the person you want to be. We use the below BOLD acronym to remind teachers and parents of a process they can follow during their next big Guard Dog (amygdala hijack) moment.

B — Breathe — Can I pause for a moment?

O — Observe feelings, thoughts and sensations — What is coming up for me right now?

L — Listen to my values — What kind of person do I want to be right now?

D — Decide on actions — How can I act in a way that reflects my values in this situation?

What are your values? Here is a sneak peek of ours at Grow Your Mind. They differ slightly to the ones I have as a parent which have playfulness and gratitude as core values. Its a reminder to me when I fall into the lieutenant mode in the mornings to instead be the parent I had imagined. I guess knowing my values offers up an opportunity to bring play, laughter and light to a magical mundane moment of being with my kids before the day demands us all to be somewhere else.

You can't fill from an empty cup

And so I return to the theme of this blog: we aren’t getting out of here alive. This is it. So why not try choosing celebration over adaption? Why not practice and persist with the art of gratitude? Why not lean into your one ‘wild and precious life?

I leave you again with the words of Leigh Sales as my final invitation to encourage you to embrace the everyday moments.

“I believe in the power of ‘being in the moment’ and no longer dismiss it as cliche worthy of an eye roll. I understand that the sight of the ocean meeting the horizon, or the sound of a champagne cork popping at the start of a dinner party or the feeling of trying to stifle uncontrollable laughter at an inappropriate moment are some of the greatest joys life holds. They are the moments you remember and for which you yearn when times are tough.”