By: Caryn Sullivan
Everyone is talking about gratitude these days. It’s good for your soul to feel grateful. Gratitude fosters resilience. What’s even better than experiencing gratitude? Expressingyour gratitude – to your boss for the great year-end bonus, to your spouse for giving you a day at the spa, to your neighbor for shoveling your walk when your grandma entered hospice.
But I’ve discovered a secret. It’s more powerful than feeling grateful. More powerful than expressing gratitude.
It’s being on the receiving end of another’s gratitude.
I’ve had an unusual professional life, derailed by and redirected by my personal life. It began with a shingle, clients, and a time sheet. But when my son was diagnosed with autism in 1993 I exited the practice of law to become his caregiver and advocate.
When I was treated for breast cancer stellar medical professionals shepherded me through the grueling treatment. Friends, family, and neighbors stepped forward to keep life on track at home.
When my daughter had a bone marrow transplant I became her constant companion, shaving her head when the chemo attacked the brown hair she held firmly to; preparing meals she asked for, then tossing them into the disposal when she realized her brain and her stomach weren’t in sync.
I’ve expressed my gratitude for medical professionals, caregivers, family, friends, and neighbors who lent a hand in usual and unexpected ways: to the doctors and nurses who helped me to heal; to my son for donating his bone marrow to his sister; to the team at the University of Minnesota who restored my daughter’s health; to CaringBridge for affording me a platform to share, process and connect during a frightening time; to the neighbors who swept out my garage, took my car to be washed, and brought flowers, toilet paper, and food after my husband’s heart failed him.
Expressing gratitude out loud and on paper has helped me to heal, to repay, in small measure, a debt that grew legs.
But I’ve also been on the receiving end of gratitude and that engendered a much different outcome.
My circuitous professional path led me back to my college degree in communications when, on a whim, I wrote an essay about the constant state of vigilance required when a child has autism. What came next was unexpected and life changing.
Within days of publication in the St. Paul Pioneer Press my essay generated email after email from strangers, all expressing the same sentiment: thank you for sharing your story, for yourstory is my story.
Those emails gave me pause. Maybe I was on to something. I had never considered being a columnist. But if my writing could help others, then maybe that was what I was supposed to do.
I wrote another piece about my family’s experience with autism. More emails.
I shifted gears and wrote about other challenges people face, some of which I had experienced firsthand, others I learned about from friends or strangers: mental illness, addiction, cancer, brain injury, military service….
Everyone has a story.
Nine years later I’ve written hundreds of columns. With the encouragement of family, friends, and fans I wrote a memoir. I’m proud and humbled by the outcome. People have told me they wished they’d read Bitter or Better years earlier. They’ve told me I’ve inspired them, helped them to heal.
The icing on the cake came when Bitter or Better won the 2015 Midwest Book Award for inspiration.
All because strangers took a moment to tell me that my story had touched their hearts. And that they were grateful. And gave me the idea, the courage, and the confidence to keep writing.
As we embark on a new year I’m eager to share more stories on the page and from the stage. I’ve found my footing, my purpose. Every email from a reader, every comment from an audience member is fuel in my resilience gas tank. When doubts insinuate themselves into my soul I reach into the reservoir of gratitude and power forward.
The gratitude of others is a gift that keeps on giving.
What about you? Who has given you the gift of gratitude? How has it helped you?