By Barry Walker
Several years ago, Ben came to see me in my role as a psychotherapist.He was 71 years old, but looked like he was ready to die. Really beat up. He said that he was a cancer survivor, and handicapped with PTSD. He was a veteran of the US Army, the CIA, and several news organizations having served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other similar war zones. It happened that he lived in Oregon, near where I was spending the summer in Montana, so I invited him to meet with me over three days at one of the houses on our property.
We spent the first meeting on Day One reviewing his life story, much of it centered around being present when thousands of people were killed, including some of his close friends. He was full of stories: Memories of village elders, feeling at home with the Afghans, his friends in the Army he did Civil and community work with, being hunted by warlords, killing people.
He told his stories with a kind of detached humor, as if the memories weren’t quite real. Of course, they were real, and he was detached in that way PTSD causes. His body was kind of frozen and rigid, especially his diaphragm and breathing. Just the sort of physical reactions terror and fear will do to you. He was a man walking around in a fear seizure.
On the second day, we sat on the deck of the house and looked out over fields and mountains. Lots of Angus beef cattle wandering over for a drink from the river running by us. Hawks, Eagles, Herons, Swans, Ducks, Cranes. He gradually went silent, watching the whole unfolding performance of Mother nature. I said nothing. At least two hours went by, interrupted only by drinks of water and tea.
After these hours, Ben began talking about his friend, Bob. He said that he and Bob had been friends for several years, working in the same Community Liaison unit of five solders. “Bob was shot in the head in a village square while he was standing right next to me.” He turned and looked at me with a blank stare, but visibly trying to compose himself.
I said, “You lost your closest friend in such a horrible way. Tell me what your friendship had been like.” Ben proceeded to tell numerous small stories and memories of touching moments. Finally, he looked at me and said, “I really miss Bob.” Tears began to roll down from his eyes, and he began to speak to Bob, as if he were present: “Godammit, Bob, not much made sense after you died. Going to the elder meetings wasn’t warm and meaningful anymore. I missed our trading stories at the end of each day. But, you know, as much as I miss you, I am deeply grateful for having you as my friend. You taught me a lot about how to talk with people. You were right there with me for all those years.”
He cried, and then laughed as some unspoken memory popped. And then cried again. His breathing was open as he quietly sobbed. Rocking a bit in his chair. Then, he looked up at a small group of ducks and said, “Thanks for being there, guys. I love you Bob. See you soon!” Cried and laughed. The rest of that day, and most of the next, we walked along the river. Ben kept stopping to point out small creature trails, flowers, second-growth
grasses, nest, and the history of stones lying around. He was alive. Again.
He wanted to show me what he knew. And he wanted to give me his books, and pieces of art. Mostly he gave himself life again. The PTSD shrank as his heart with gratitude opened up. Thank you Mother Nature.
Everybody agrees: Gratitude is a good thing. Lots of testimonials to the wonder of ‘Gratitude’. And, it truly is a wondrous feeling and awareness. For me, it’s what love is. “I am so grateful for you” is what I mean when I say “I love you”.
The great news is that Gratitude is always present in our lives. It is a fundamental organ of consciousness. It is love, forgiveness, tenderness. And Empathy. If only we could allow it to have its voice. To sing its song. To guide our lives.
As I said above, we do not have to go in search of Gratitude; it lives within us all the time. The real question is: “How come we don’t feel it all the time?”
The answer: “Anxiety gets in the way”. Reduce the toxic impact of anxiety and Gratitude will be there most of the time. There is no work to do to initiate Gratitude. Perhaps there is work, like journaling, that can be done to keep Gratitude fueled up, especially when anxiety wants to run you. But, in the end, the work is with anxiety. Your anxiety. At whatever level you live with it.
So, here’s the core question, vexing though it is: “How do I get more gratitude in my life?” “Or, in the lives of our communities, our societies?”
The answer is, “Reduce anxiety and fear”.
“How do I reduce anxiety without a lot to medications?”
The answer: Pursue Safety. Become intimate and conversant with your own anxiety. Tell the truth, Reveal yourself. Notice when you are anxious. Say so.
At first blush this ‘Reduce Anxiety’ pathway to Gratitude may seem simplistic. For sure, it is simple. Indeed, if it’s right, it’s elegant. Instead of seeking ways to amplify Gratitude, we will find the pot of gold that is Gratitude as we do our work to reduce anxiety.
There is no pill that can do this, apparently. Although there are some meditations and ‘mindfulness’ practices that can help us towards Gratitude. (Medications that are intended to be ‘anti-anxiety’, like Xanax and Ativan relieve only the symptoms of anxiety, at a cost.)
There is plenty written about using the power of personal intention to notice and reflect on Gratitude in each of our lives. Keeping a ‘Gratitude Journal’ is high on the list these days. Oprah says so. ‘Gratitude arrives as a heart-based fuel in your life as you seek to allow it in’. Being grateful begets more life satisfaction. Being deliberately grateful stokes the fires of well-being. All good. And true. Until anxiety gets in the way.
In my experience, ‘getting anxiety out of the way’ is a learnable task that can be added to mindfulness practices in everyday life.
While acknowledging the expanding and sophisticating explorations being done in the worlds of neuroscience, psychiatry, spirituality, and philosophy, I can offer the following from my vantage point as a psychotherapist.
Have you ever had a life-threatening experience, or deep fear of loss? Many have. At least, you’ve seen people who have had such experiences. Almost universally, if the threat goes away, or is suddenly relieved, potential victims break out into ‘love for life’, Gratitude for being safe, determinations to ‘live life being of service’. And so on. This happens in part because in these ‘survival’ events anxiety is suddenly removed from current experience. And what pops into consciousness is gratitude, safety, love, compassion, empathy.
I have watched people for decades finding Gratitude as the result of experiences in nature, for example. The wilderness offers opportunities to become one with nature. Gratitude follows. As well, the urge to share the experience with others.
I have been present in therapy session with couples when one of the partners reveals a secret which has been held in fear. I’ve seen those people break down in combinations of relief and agony as they choose life in the open rather than life in fear of being found out. I have seen shame overcome by the simple act of being revealed in truth. Often love and understanding have followed. I have seen business partners tell the truth to each other, scary though that might be, and then seen their businesses grow and evolve.
What I am saying here is that anxiety and fear suppress our natural inclinations towards gratitude and empathy. Remove, or reduce, the anxiety, and gratitude emerges. Remove the anxiety without diluting presence. Gratitude is as natural a state as breathing. On the other hand, anxiety and fear squash gratitude and love into small corners for safety.
Imagine the impact on the world of psychotherapy if we had tools to actually remove anxiety from people while they considered their lives? Hardly any of us realize the extent to which even everyday anxiety distorts our experience. We have become habituated to anxiety. Much current psychotherapy happens in the midst of the haze of anxiety. Medications to reduce the anxiety simply create a different kind of haze.
“How can I speak with such certainty about how gratitude happens?”, you might rightly ask. Life’s experiences, both personal and professional.
Anxiety, too, is a natural state. As organic beings we need anxiety just to survive. Alertness! Our senses provide us with safety information. As they should. Are intended to do. But, that same anxiety becomes exponentially elaborated and intense when we have been wounded emotionally while in vulnerable states, traumatized through violation or the horror of war. In severe events of anxiety, our bodies freeze, our blood flow retreats towards our organs, our breathing goes into panic mode, or stops altogether. This kind of fear leaves a wreckage which frustrates our ability to feel secure and safe. Fear can crumple everyday life into a semi-lifeless wasteland devoid of joy, and certainly without gratitude. In this state, some of us contemplate suicide. Some of us use anxiety medications like nicotine, alcohol, opioids. Others of us retreat from life into depression. Depression, after all, is a good antidote to anxiety.
In the end, there is, currently, a world of interest in Gratitude. Saying it one more time, I believe that Gratitude is a natural state of being. I also believe that anxiety is a natural state of being. But Gratitude disappears when anxiety becomes too much, for whatever reason. You will find Gratitude, and Love, and Empathy, and Kindness, as you are able to reduce the Anxiety in your life. The implications are obvious.
In another paper I will discuss some cases where Gratitude emerges as Anxiety recedes.
Barry Walker@2017. Barry Walker is a practicing Psychotherapist and teacher in NYC.