On December 9, 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby, the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, had a stroke and fell into a coma. Twenty days later he woke up with mental abilities intact but physically paralyzed with 'locked in' syndrome. He could only slightly move his head and eyes. He wrote the book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by blinking his left eyelid.
In his book, Bauby describes his life before his stroke and what it is like to be locked into his body afterwards. He wrote it by using a transcriber that went through the alphabet until Bauby blinked to pick the next letter. It took him 200,000 blinks to write the book with an average time of two minutes per word.
Bauby wrote in the prologue:
Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day. My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton and something like a giant invisible cocoon holds my whole body prisoner. My room emerges slowly from the gloom. I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children's drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock...
I decided to stop pitying myself. Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my memory and my imagination... My diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do.
I think of Bauby blinking his way past his paralyzed world, and I wonder: what was his secret? How did he have the strength to struggle through each word instead of fading into his own sorrow? How did he find a way to see what he still had left instead of all that he had lost?
He died soon after his book was published, but he left us the gift of his gratitude. He was locked into his body, but he used his mind to set him free. We sometimes do the opposite by locking ourselves into our own minds, remaining disconnected from our surroundings.
Last year we were at a hotel next to the Ramon crater in Israel. I was standing at the edge of the crater at sunset, watching the light bathe the red rocks with an ethereal glow. It looked like the world must have looked like at the beginning of time; just the Creator and the space to create a crater. The horizon melted into the earth as the night began to fall.
Then someone a few steps away from me said loudly into her phone, "There’s nothing to do here! I am bored out of my mind."
How do we break free from the 'there's-nothing-to-see-here’ syndrome? Here are five ways to help unlock the door to gratitude:
"I have what I need." This is a blessing we say every morning: Thank You for providing me with everything that I need. But how many of us really mean it? On the days that I think about the words carefully, I am astounded by their truth. God provides me with my every need, with each part of my life designed to enable me to grow and give and fulfill my purpose in this world. I may want a hundred other things. But those are wants, not needs. Don't make your wants into needs.
"I appreciate you." The ‘you’ in this sentence can be your spouse, your co-worker, your friend or even the clerk at the supermarket. And it's nice if you say this out loud, but even if you say it just in your mind, you will not only increase your own sense of gratitude, but you will end up strengthening your relationships. When we become aware of the value of our friends and family members, we end up treating them better and then appreciating them more in a continuous, upward spiral.
"I believe." It is very hard to be grateful in a chaotic, senseless world. We all need to believe in something beyond ourselves. And we need to know what we believe and to not be afraid to stand behind it. When we focus on our values and what we know to be true, we can access not only gratitude for today but also hope for tomorrow's potential.
"This is what I love." I once had the following assignment in a positive psychology course in university: List everything that you love about life. It surprised me how hard it was to begin that assignment, but once I had started, it was hard to stop. The aroma of coffee. The way the sidewalk sparkles in the morning light. A child's laughter. Flowers. Books. Running. Shabbos candles. Deep conversations. The color of the sky after it rains...Even if you pick one thing once a day, it will incrementally increase your sense of gratitude by highlighting what you love in life.
"I want to know." Be curious about the world around you. Ask how things work. Wonder why. Be interested in other people and how they see the world. This will help you to be attuned to your surroundings and to recognize the beauty in your life.
Every now and then I re-read the first paragraph of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I think about the times in my life that I have thought that there is nothing to see, nothing to do, nothing to be grateful for. And I blink my own eyes and remember. Gratitude itself is a gift that we are offered each day. It is up to us to see it. It is up to us to receive it. Unlock your mind. There is so much to do.