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Giving Thanks on the 2-for-1 Plan

November 27, 2013

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For anyone with a serious disability, it’s only natural to treat Thanksgiving more as day of reflection than celebration. There’s always room for both, but ever since I was injured in 1979, I’ve always felt what I considered to be a completely natural degree of ambivalence toward the holiday. Especially in my first years post-injury, the name itself seemed like a cruel provocation: Thanksgiving? Giving thanks for what, exactly? For this young but broken body, and the wheelchair it needs to haul itself around? Truth be told, I rarely felt that bitter or self-pitying about my injury or the holidays in general, but Thanksgiving, by its very nature, has always been accompanied by a melancholy sense of irony.

I know some people who are genuinely thankful for their disability and the way it changed their lives, in many respects, for the better. In some deep part of my soul I can understand that; I’m certainly grateful for the kind of deep-rooted wisdom that comes when you achieve peaceful coexistence with paralysis (or as peaceful as it can get, anyway). And when I refer to a “melancholy sense of irony” with regard to paralysis and Thanksgiving, that prevailing mood should not be misconstrued as negative. For me, a bit of melancholy over the holidays has always been useful for putting things into a genuinely thankful perspective. To appreciate the highs, you have to maintain a realistic acceptance of the lows.

The 2-for-1 Trade-Off

Even with a healthy sense of perspective, however, I doubt I’ll ever rank myself among those who truly feel thankful for their disability; my brain just isn’t wired to be quite that accepting. Instead, I developed a basic psychological strategy that may seem utterly simplistic, but it’s been working well for me for three decades’ worth of Thanksgivings now, so it must have some merit.

It’s a simple game of 2-for-1 involving life’s pros and cons: For every single thing you can’t be thankful for, you have to come up with two things – any two things – that you genuinely feel thankful for. And if you can’t maintain a constant rate of 2-for-1, you simply aren’t trying hard enough. (Yes, I know, this sounds a bit childish, and in some respects it is, but as a psychological pastime it’s a bona fide spirit-booster.) Here’s an example: Why would I ever feel thankful for the neuropathic pain that makes nearly every day of my life less enjoyable than it could be? On the other hand, (1) I’m grateful that I’ve found the right balance of pain medication to keep me reasonably functional and (2) I have a good health insurance plan that covers the cost of those meds.

And whoever said that all of these 2-for-1 trade-offs must always relate to our disability? There’s no rule against mixing it up like this: I can’t be thankful for that pressure sore on my foot that’s taking forever to heal, but (1) I’m thankful for all those pleasant encounters with the attractive nurse at the wound-care clinic and (2) I’m thankful that “Breaking Bad” ended with such memorable intensity. See how that works? Anything goes as long as it’s at least 2-for-1. It’s a mix-and-match game of gratitude for the year that’s nearly ended. All “pros” are allowed, even at random, and all “cons” must be subject to scrutiny and placed in proper perspective.

Expand Your “Gratitude Criteria”

When things aren’t going well – and 2013 was, for me, a very difficult year – placing thanks can and should transcend the personal. Even when it seems like things are looking bleak in your own life, there’s no reason you can’t counteract those desolate emotions by giving thanks for things beyond your own personal needs and desires.

So while this year may have been personally challenging, I’ve been thankful not only for surviving those challenges, but also for such simple pleasures as (1) watching spiders construct their intricate webs during an unusually warm Indian summer; (2) witnessing the Seattle Seahawks’ best season ever (and I’m not even a huge football fan); (3) marveling at the technical achievements on display in the hit movie “Gravity”; and (4) enjoying Paul McCartney’s latest album “New” as I write this column. (The list goes on, and speaking of which: Writing this blog for the Facing Disability website tops my list of things to be thankful for in 2013. It’s an honor and a privilege to have such a personal avenue of expression related to spinal cord injury.)

And while the game might be 2-for-1 at its simplest, there’s nothing stopping you from adding more pros against the cons (hence my examples of 3 and 4 above), especially when your circumstances are unusually challenging. You could boil this all down to “it’s the little things that matter,” and there’s a reason that cliché has endured: It has the unmistakable ring of truth about it, just like “the best things in life are free.” When we expand our “gratitude criteria” to include the entirety of our existence, there’s never any shortage of things to be thankful for.

Who was Jeff Shannon?

What are your thoughts on Thanksgiving? Please share below.

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