I keep a large jar on my dining room table, along with a small box filled with blank strips of paper. Whenever something good happens to me I write down a few words describing it, then fold the paper and stick it in my jar. Sometimes they’re big events, but most often they’re small, almost inconsequential occurrences: a potted plant that finally blooms; a call from a friend I haven’t heard from in a long time; a scarlet hued sunset. At the end of the year, I open my jar and read each of the strips of paper, remembering and savoring the ways my life has been blessed.
Sorry to say, sometimes I forget to write anything down for weeks at a time, even though the jar is sitting right there in front of me on the table, staring me in the face. But the mechanics of life can easily consume me; unless I make a conscious effort, I tend to overlook many of the nice things that happen along the way. I have my share of ups and downs, of course, like anybody else. So when depressing news leaves me wondering where this world is headed, or when the hectic pace of my own life threatens to engulf me, my jar helps keeps me anchored. My life, it reminds me, is good for the most part. I just need to take the time to recognize that fact.
Research backs me up on this, by the way. Robert Emmons, the lab director at UC Davis has spent years studying how gratitude heals and transforms. He reports that when the people in his study kept gratitude journals they felt better about the quality of their lives. They experienced higher levels of alertness and energy, suffered less physical complaints, were more likely to make progress in attaining important life goals, and even slept better. (You can read an interesting summary of his findings at http://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/gratitude-and-well-being/ )
I put something else, other than a strip of paper, in my jar the other day. I teach a number of classes to children each week, a job I dearly love. However, as any teacher knows, there is always one kid in any class who can push your patience to the outer limits. For me this year, that kid is Rick. (Name changed of course.)
Rick is a sweet, intelligent, curious, 9-year-old boy. But he’s also a whirlwind of motion; he talks non-stop, interrupts constantly, jabs the other kids with pencils, jiggles his desk on his knees, makes spitballs, squirms, wiggles and always has something in his hands unrelated to classwork. If he manages to sit still for 2 minutes out of an eighty minute class, I am tempted to write him up and put him in my jar. The problem is, when Rick truly gets going all learning grinds to a halt for everybody else in the classroom. His distractions can be off the charts sometimes.
Rick is a child made for movement. Had he lived in a previous century, he would have no doubt been put to work on the family farm hauling bales of hay with gusto, happily burning his energy in profitable ways. If Rick attended an American school today, he would most likely be put on Ritalin. But Rick lives in China in 2017, a time and place where cultural taboos preclude much discussion about ADHD. His parents expect him to sit in my English classroom twice a week, after already having endured a long day of sitting in school. Then Rick goes home, where he sits down to do more homework; sadly, the cards of the educational system are stacked against this kid.
I realize the challenges Rick faces and I’ve developed strategies for keeping him occupied and focused, but teaching a class with him can sometimes be the equivalent of a work-out at the gym. So yesterday, when he popped out of his chair and ran to the back of the room and started digging furiously through his backpack, I was weary with it all. I grit my teeth and stomped down the aisle after him.
I was surprised that he’d jumped up, actually; he knows the rules and we were doing an activity that he particularly enjoys, making scrapbooks. I was sure it would keep him busy and occupied. Rick dreads tedious writing exercises but loves any kind of creative work. When I announced we’d be working on scrapbooks today he’d been overjoyed. So what was the problem now?
Rick! I tried to get his attention, but he was hunched over his backpack with the intense focus of a dog retrieving a buried bone. He could hear and see nothing else. Papers flew through the air and the floor was showered with the contents of his school bag; notebooks, pens and pencils, snacks, gadgets and small toys were all dumped haphazardly at his feet. The other children were giggling and pointing. I’d had it by now, and my temper flared. I opened my mouth to order him back to his seat, when he suddenly stood up, face aglow, and held out something reverently in his hand. “Here!” he announced, offering it to me.
What in the world…? I stared at a small, lint covered pebble, the size of a pea. “Is it a rock?” I asked.
“Yes!” He struggled to find the English words. “This rock…you have two of them…you…bang!” he struck his fists together. “You can make fire! I have two big ones at home. I give this small one for you!” He looked delighted with himself.
Flint! What 9 year-old boy wouldn’t be intrigued by it? He treasured it and wanted to share it with me. Rick loved scrap-booking so much, and was so thankful to be doing it, that it triggered the thought that he should do something nice for me in return. Suddenly, the mess was of no consequence.
“Thank you so much Rick. It’s a wonderful gift.”
When I got home, I put the small pebble of flint in my jar of thanks. It will remind me that things aren’t always as they seem, and I don’t always get it right. If I don’t take the time to understand why people do the things they do, I might miss something quite wonderful. I’m thankful that this time, I saw it.