Recently, as I neared the top of a difficult 35 foot (12 meter) climb at the local climbing gym in my newly adopted home of Vancouver, I made a dynamic move to reach the last hold. My right hand grabbed the small, awkwardly placed hold, but I couldn’t hang on, and my body fell away from the wall. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal: I was “on belay”, the rope secured to my harness, looped around a pulley at the top of the route and then down to a belay device on the harness of my partner on the floor below me. Falls like this happen all the time, and they’re no big deal, a small drop until the rope catches you, and you rest in the air before getting back on the route to try the move again.
But not this time. This time, something went terribly wrong. I glanced down as I fell from the hold, and watched in horror as the rope raced through the harness and disappeared from view. I was free-falling from 30 feet, and there was nothing but the ground to stop my fall.
When I hit the rubber mat, the shock was intense, a violent impact that reverberated through my body. Thankfully, I landed in the same position I was in when my hand slipped from the hold: leaning up and to the right, so that I landed on my right side. Had I been upright, or in just about any other position, I would probably have broken my legs, and possible my spine or neck vertebrae. My head didn’t hit the ground, so there was no concussion. I broke my right ankle pretty severely, and had three minor pelvic fractures, but the emergency medical technicians reassured me that I wasn’t paralyzed. That was my terror, the question I asked repeatedly once I realized I’d survived the fall.
A colleague of mine, an emergency physician, told me afterwards that 30 feet is the start of what they call the fatality zone, That’s the zone where they consider the possibility of death a significant risk. I didn’t die, and I wasn’t paralyzed. In fact, I was extraordinarily lucky.
Somehow, I’d tied a bad knot when I secured the rope to my harness, yet despite the height, I’d survived the fall surprisingly intact. I had surgery on my ankle, and I’m in a wheelchair and on crutches for a couple months, but I’m just a visitor to the world of disability. Five weeks after the fall, my pelvis is largely healed, and I can feel the ankle getting better by the day. I live and work in buildings with elevators, and the sidewalks are all wheelchair-friendly, so getting around isnt a problem.
For all of that, I am deeply grateful. And that’s really what I want to write about in this post: the power of gratitude to help us through difficult times.
Gratitude In the Face of Immense Suffering
For most of my career, I’ve been working with people who’ve survived genocide, civil war, and displacement from their homes, communities, and homelands. Again and again, as I describe in my book War Torn, I’ve heard survivors of the most horrific violence and loss express gratitude for their survival, for the family members they didn’t lose, for the new chance they’ve gotten at building a life in exile. I’ve always been mystified by their capacity to focus on the good in the face of so much tragedy, to hold onto gratitude when it would be so easy to get locked into feelings of despair, fear, hopelessness, and rage.
I recall a Bosnian woman whose parents and brother had died when nationalist Bosnian Serbs set fire to their home. As she sat in my office, grief-stricken and haunted by the images of the burning house, she kept thanking God that she and her children had survived, that they had escaped to Croatia and eventually found a new home in Chicago.
Her words weren’t spoken lightly; on the contrary, she genuinely felt gratitude despite the lasting emotional pain of her losses and the distressing memories of what she had witnessed. In fact, I believe her gratitude was a sort of psychological lifeline, a way of focusing on what she still had, rather than getting lost in despair at what she had lost. I’ve seen this sort of positive focus, this appreciation of whatever good one can still find, everywhere I’ve worked, every war zone and refugee community.
There’s also great pain in these places, of course, the legacy of war’s destructive power. But in the midst of that pain, and perhaps as a sort of balm to soothe it, is the power of gratitude to shift the focus away from what has been lost, to what remains, what is still possible, the seeds of hope.
Gratitude has been getting a lot of attention from researchers in recent years, particularly those who make their home in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness, and post-traumatic growth. A 2010 review paper found that gratitude, or an intentional focus on appreciating the positive aspects of life, is strongly and causally related to both physical and psychological wellbeing. There’s also growing evidence that simple gratitude meditations done on a daily basis can improve our mental health, and that cultivating gratitude can even strengthen our immune functioning, As we shift our focus towards what is positive in our lives, or reframe painful experiences in ways that allow us to grow, gain wisdom and compassion, and deepen our empathy with others, we also dial down our stress response, lessening the flow of stress -related hormones through our bodies.
A Question to Ask
I’ve always found it a delicate line to walk when it comes to suggesting to someone in pain that they have much to be grateful for. It can come across as callous, an empathic failure that doesn’t acknowledge their suffering. More often than not, I find that people come to a place of gratitude on their own, an organic process that doesn’t require outside assistance beyond the love and support of family and friends, and perhaps the spiritual support of their community of faith. But for others who have gotten stuck in despair and bitterness, after an empathic and supportive connection has been established, a gentle question about gratitude can sometimes shift things, and help them begin to get unstuck.
“I wonder, after all that you’ve gone through, and in the midst of all that you’re still dealing with, is there anything you feel grateful for?”
“In this difficult time, is there anything you can hold to that gives you a sense of hope? Anything you can focus on that you feel good about, that comforts you and helps you feel more at ease?”
If the answer yes, and they can name things they are grateful for, I might ask how it feels to shift their focus in this way. There’s often a sense of relief, a palpable easing of the tension they’ve been holding.
Sometimes, however, the answer may be “No”. There’s simply nothing they can think of for which they feel grateful in that moment. That’s alright. The questions are meant to plant a seed, and seeds take time to take grow. The cultivation of gratitude in a place of darkness may be a gradual process.
As I lay in the hospital bed on the night of my fall, frightened, alone and in pain in a city I had just moved to three days earlier, I could barely move due to the pain and the heavy cast. Half asleep in the semi-darkness of the hospital room, I kept imagining myself paralyzed. But then a wiser voice within me quickly reminded me that I only had a broken ankle and minor pelvic fractures. The reminder pulled me out of my fear and despair; it felt like a figurative rope out of the dark thoughts I was falling into. Another climber had been brought into the ER that same night, and he had not fared nearly as well. I felt gratitude that my injuries were not more severe, and that relatively soon I would walk and even climb again. I felt gratitude that my older sister had already booked a flight from New York to come help me after I was released from the hospital. I felt gratitude to be alive.
In the challenging first weeks after leaving the hospital, I would catch myself slipping into frustration and depression at my disability, at the intense effort of the simplest tasks, and the isolation caused by my injuries. The life rope I grabbed onto in those moments was gratitude, shifting my thoughts from the inconvenience of my injuries to how much worse this could have been, and to how normal things would be again in a few months. I focused on the incredible support of my family and friends and new colleagues, and on the beautiful mountains I would be able to explore just outside the city. This shift in perspective made all the difference, like a pathway out of a dark place that offered nothing but anxiety and distress. That dark place is still there, and it’s easy to find myself falling into it. But the path out is always just a shift in perspective away, and for that, I am grateful.
A Gratitude Exercise
Want to try a simple and well-researched method of cultivating gratitude? At the start or end of each day, open a “gratitude journal” or simply speak aloud five “things” for which you feel grateful. They could include people you care about, a friend you recently reconnected with, a great conversation with your partner, your health, a pet, your home, the kindness someone showed you recently, the resolution of a conflict with a colleague or loved one, or the comfort of your body sitting in a chair or a cushion. Take a moment to notice how you feel as you write or name of these. What does this focus on gratitude feel like? Notice the feelings and thoughts that arise, as well as any shifts in your energy or posture. Just sit with this awareness for a moment, and move along to whatever’s next in your day.