Friday, November 24, 2017

Talk about gratitude

I've come across a lot of different personality types in my journey across life, as I'm sure have you. Some are pretty negative about the way they see life, feeling continually shat upon and thinking that everybody else has it easy and they don't. This seems like a majority opinion. There are varieties of hall-full/half-empty combinations, and some folks who aren't so easy to categorize because they seem to change their ideas once in a while. And then there are a very few people who are not only quite positive about what they think life can be and what they can get out of it, but they spread that joy to everyone around them and cause improved performance and improved attitude from everyone with whom they come in contact; they are liked by virtually everybody. I've had to privilege to know a few of these people. When they are in the room everyone else seems to be able to ride on their encouragement like a wave or warm themselves in the rays of their sun.

Have you ever wondered how they got that way?

I'm not talking about Pollyannaesque denial of reality, either. These folks seem to be pretty grounded in gritty practicality, too--it's not that they don't know what stinkers we all are, it's that they know how to steer the other way and in the process get us all to go there as well, at least for a while.

While I was in chemo I experienced a pretty wild ride on waves of despair and exuberance. Every time I got intentionally poisoned for 5 days in a row things got really ugly for a week or so and then, right near the end of a cycle I'd slowly come out of it and feel my body roar back to life.  I'd try to eat everything in sight to put back the several pounds I'd lost, and resume community with the people I couldn't see while I was under the waves. As we were in the middle of a move to another state, I was saying farewell to the people I'd know for the last decade and also leaving my jobs. Those days were full of major occasions like last concerts, church services, and a graduation. These were occasions that would have felt epic under normal circumstances but now they felt enormous. If you ever wanted to experience huge waves of gratitude for being alive this is one way to experience it. Not that I'd recommend it.

It occurred to me to wonder whether whether this sort of experience wasn't in the biography of every larger-than-life optimist; dark days that had given rise to a great victory; personal struggle with demons vanquished and a sense that everything afterward is a privilege that never lets up. I wondered if it would change me.

I don't think it has, really. After the chemicals wore off and life resumed some sort of normality the soaring movie music began to fade. However, as I explained to a friend who asked, there are two addendum to note here: one is that, well before cancer struck I had a sense that I wasn't going to live forever, that life is fleeting, time is precious, and if you have something to do you'd better do it and not dilly around because you never know. The other was that life is a gift and being able to do what I do is awesome. I would bound up the stairs to the sanctuary every morning looking forward to the practice ahead, know that it would eventually get difficult and onerous but that I'd emerge with a new swath of music in my head and heart and loving the process, or at least the results. So the two cliches were already in place: I wasn't taking life for granted anyhow, and I was motivated by both the joy and the scarcity. Thus, not only do I not detect a huge change in outlook, I'm not sure there was much room to go in the that direction. But I may have gotten even more focused and more gratitudinous (sorry, but how do you make that a noun?)*.

Still, it's possible that there has been some change. A larger-than-life friend I talked to after the treatments thought the experience might change my music. Only recently I've begun to noticed a compositional shift taking effect, and I don't know where all of its roots lie. Perhaps.  I also seem to have registered as a friendly, positive person among my new associates in my new environment. It is somewhat of a surprise to be told that, but then I had been working at it.

Which is basically my point this morning. Outsiders to music tend to think--and share with those of us who are practitioners--that some of us were just 'born with it' and that it just 'comes naturally' as you shake the magic notes out of your fingers. Those of us on the inside know how much hard work is involved: thousands upon thousands of hours of practice, thing building upon thing until sometimes it actually is pretty easy, but you have to go a long way to get there. And sometimes it is still very very hard. Why should it be any different with attitudes?

The mysterious alchemy that goes into great achievement is not so easy to define. Surely there is some native talent for whatever we do. Then there is opportunity, which may be defined as the experiences we have that allow us to grow, some of which may be unpleasant. Then there is the daily work to take what we have and see what we can do with it. It is only the last of these that is under our control, and for that good reason is the one on which achievers tend to focus while others get caught up lauding the other two.

I can, of course, feel lucky to be in possession of the first two: grateful, if you like. And then spurred on to respond to those gifts by adding one of my own: saying yes to them in real time. And my readers can respond in at least two ways as well: as a feel good piece about the joy of life or having a positive attitude or something else we all knew already but enjoyed having affirmed, can work to make these things (in the phraseology of Wallace Stevens) your "gradual possession." Not something you have to jealously guard or fear the loss of, but something you can joyfully give away.

*Grateful. But that isn't as much fun.

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