Cultivating Gratitude With Chronic Illness

Reviewed by Phillip Waite, Ph.D.

Somehow it seems counter-intuitive to feel grateful for having a chronic illness. After all it can change your life in so many not-so-good ways. That is how I looked at chronic illness before I was diagnosed and for several years after. There was very little good I could find about it. But then something gradually changed and it wasn't my health. It was my attitude. I started feeling grateful.

Chronic illness has helped me become a better person than I was before in ways that I would never go back and change. Ever heard the expression "trial by fire"? Well, that fire can refine us into something as good as gold. Something valuable. Helping us reach a higher standard of human and spiritual existence. The changes were simple at first. Initially, I started feeling greater empathy, especially toward family, friends and even strangers that were struggling with illness. I knew from my own experience what they were going through in their personal trials and was able to be more understanding and helpful to them. Gradually and over time I realized that my own personal capacity for dealing with pain and suffering had increased dramatically. I was able to "endure" more than I ever thought I could. This gave me the confidence I needed to face new challenges. Finally, chronic illness forced me to overcome my own sense of pride and reach out to others for help when I really needed it the most. This has resulted in great blessings for me and my family in learning how to "receive".

Cultivating gratitude amid chronic illness doesn't just happen, you have to seek it out. It requires you to be self aware of others and the world around you. It means focusing on things that really matter, often beyond yourself. It requires an appreciation for the little things, like a hug from a loved one or the warmth of the sunlight on your skin on a sky blue day. Eventually you'll find that gratitude requires less effort on your part and starts to become a subconscious recognition of all that is good in your life. You'll find yourself worrying less about your own health as you focus on the welfare of others. You'll start to appreciate what you can do, instead of what you can't. You'll begin to feel grateful for life and all the possibilities it still offers you.

One of my favorite blogs is An Attitude of Gratitude. The subtitle to the blog is even better: "One woman's journey to learn to live life from a place of gratitude while fighting Rheumatoid Arthritis." The author, Jules, just reached her 400th blog post! She will be the first to admit that not every day is wonderful. In fact, many are not. But it is the recognition that she determines how she will live with chronic illness, from a place of gratitude, that inspires me the most. Rather than looking at how chronic illness can limit her life, she looks at how she can live despite it.

I'm not perfect. And I'm not always grateful. Recently, after an especially difficult day, I complained on my Twitter feed that I was struggling with pain and stiffness from my Fibromyalgia and Sjogren's Syndrome. Just after I posted, someone I follow posted this tweet:

"Tomorrow I have to go get labs done to prep for my rheumy app. Blah. But at least I have health insurance to pay for it!!"

This immediately changed my perspective! How could I be so blind? It was true. I too had health insurance and I was certainly grateful for it. I loved that although she was not excited about her tests, she still managed to be grateful! I immediately tweeted back that I admired her attitude. She responded:

"I try 2 believe that no matter what, good things r in my life. I can't always see the good but I have to trust it is there."

Now that is cultivating gratitude!

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