I don’t like surprises. Give me time to prepare and I can handle almost anything, but surprises are not welcome guests in my brain.
So, in December I tore my Achilles’ tendon.
December vacation plans? Canceled.
January’s trip to Washington with our Confirmation students? They went without me.
February’s study seminar, an annual event with cherished colleagues? Not allowed to fly yet.
And exactly how long before I’m back to normal, whatever that is? Oh, half a year.
I’ve had surgery before, but I was always given time to prepare, to make arrangements… to plan. Not this time. I saw the doctor on Friday and the operation was on Monday.
I was annoyed, angry and yes, scared. Too many surprises and none of them good. But the biggest surprise was that I learned something important about myself from the experience.
I learned that over the years I have developed resources – internal resources – which I can call on in difficult times. And of these resources, the one that was most useful to me was gratitude.
At Shabbat evening services, when we ask you to think about the best thing that happened to you that week, we are cultivating gratitude: a feeling that there is good in the world, and in our lives. On Saturday mornings, when we make a verbal list of the blessings in our lives, we model ways to express gratitude. My own practice when I awaken each morning is to sit up and list the blessings I have in my life; when I do this, I make gratitude part of each day. And, to my surprise, gratitude was there to support me when I needed it.
When the doctor laid out the (surprise!) schedule of the next six months, I took a bunch of deep breaths. By the time I got home after the appointment I was not a happy camper. But that night was Rock Shabbat / Hanukkah, and I knew I had to be there… after all, it’s my job. So I dragged myself and my new, huge, clumsy boot-cast to temple, put on a good face and let the service begin.
I really like Rock Shabbat. I like the melodies that are now familiar, I like the new ideas which our guest artists bring and I like the feeling in the room when we let go and pray together. And Rock Shabbat Hanukkah – that just can’t be beat. Before I realized it, my annoyance, my anger and even my fear faded into the background. The beauty of over 500 Hanukkah candles, hundreds of faces alight with their glow, the music, the special events of the evening… they were too good, too special, too holy to leave room for my concerns. At the end of the service I told everyone I was grateful to them for sharing that special evening with me. Gratitude won out over fear, and even over surprise.
The next morning, as I listed my blessings before arising, I thought about each one very, very carefully. I didn’t just list them, I tried to feel them: how it feels to have a roof over my head, food on my plate, family and friends who truly care, and on, and on, and on. I said then, as I’ve said many times, that if my life ended at this moment I have been cheated out of nothing. And for that, I was grateful. So grateful that I forgot to be scared.
Over the weekend I rehearsed my list of blessings. And I kept reciting that list right up to the moment they brought me into the OR. I picked it up again, beginning with Modeh Ani, the minute I woke up afterward. And I saw that my years of consciously cultivating a feeling of being blessed helped me. It allowed me to access those feelings immediately, because they weren’t strangers to me. I didn’t start to count my blessings in order to prepare for surgery one day, but it sure was good to have so many at my fingertips when I needed them.
I am so blessed. What difference does a surprise or two really make?
Each of us faces challenges in our life: Challenges at work, at home, with our health, or just handling the unpleasant surprises that come our way. What I learned from the past weeks is that a cultivated sense of gratitude is a powerful tool, a weapon to use against the difficulties we all face at one time or another. Now that I am on the path to recovery, I want to share this thought, this spiritual practice, with others who may benefit from it. If you would like to learn more, or if I can help to start you on a path to your own sense of deep, abiding gratitude for the blessings you have in your life, please let me know. It would be my honor to share what I have learned, and to learn together with you. In a society which wants us to focus on what we need to buy to be happy, gratitude offers an antidote to a lot of what ails us.
To every temple member who reached out with offers of help and prayers for healing… thank you for blessing me with your love. I am truly grateful.
Rabbi Don Weber