Appreciation appreciates: How to be grateful even for the hardships

Reframe and rewrite the negatives in your life

This is the week when, as a people, we focus on all that we have to be thankful for—our loved ones, our homes and communities, our health, food to eat, work we love, passions we are able to pursue.

Here in the richest country on Earth, we often take for granted conveniences that would have astounded people living just a few generations ago: “smart” watches, phones, cars, and televisions; instantaneous global communications; information about any and every subject at our fingertips; personal automobiles, perhaps along with boats, bikes, skis, jet skis, and countless other types of recreational gear; closets overflowing with clothes and shoes; indeed, so much “stuff” we need storage units to keep it all in.

Yet despite this abundance, we often live our days focusing on what we think is “wrong” with our circumstances: the things we want but don’t have; the people who annoy us; the frustrations we encounter; the disappointments we endure; the physical complaints we may have.

Indeed, many of us face serious challenges: debilitating health issues, financial hardships, the loss of people dear to us, or other problems that may seem insurmountable from our present position. Too often, though, we allow these problems to fill our view and color our entire perspective on life. This isn’t fair; nor is it realistic. Rationally, we know that no one alive escapes hardship or heartache, so why do we allow our own to overwhelm us?

I often say, “Life is good, bad, and indifferent. Focus on the good.” After all, life doesn’t owe us perfect health, satisfying relationships, and a traffic-free commute. When life doesn’t live up to our expectations, we need to resist the temptation to become frustrated, then angry, and then perhaps depressed. That’s why it’s so important to develop a gratitude practice—a daily reminder of all the good in our lives even on the most difficult days.

There’s a story told by Corrie ten Boom in her book, The Hiding Place, which is about her imprisonment as a child at the Nazi concentration camp at Ravensbrück. One of the ways that she and her sister survived was by listing the things they could be grateful for even in their horrible circumstances. One day, her sister included on the list the lice and fleas that were rampant in the crowded, unsanitary barracks. Corrie thought, “Really? We have to be grateful even for the fleas?”

One day, though, when a guard was called to the barracks to resolve a dispute, the man refused to enter because of the fleas. At that moment, Corrie appreciated the unknown benefit she had derived from the parasites: she and her barrack-mates had enjoyed relative freedom because the guards avoided entering their flea-infested shelter.

Hopefully, none of us will have to endure what Corrie endured. Yet hardship, ironically, is one of the aspects of life that makes us more appreciative of all the good we take for granted. If you’ve ever been in intense pain, you know how good it feels when the pain medication kicks in and relieves you of it. Suddenly, the return to pain-free normal is a joy. Yet few of us give thanks each day—each moment—for being free of pain. It takes the loss of “normal” to make us appreciate how good we had it. As the Joni Mitchell song says, “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

We don’t have to live this way, however. We can cultivate a practice of gratitude and appreciation—and, in addition to making ourselves feel better in the moment, appreciation appreciates. Whatever you focus on becomes larger in your awareness. So why not focus on the good?

For some reason—perhaps the example my parents set for me—my own life’s difficulties never blinded me to the good that was also present even during the most challenging times. When bad things happened, I turned my attention to what was still good.

For example, even though my family experienced poverty and precariousness as new immigrants to the U.S., we also knew the joy of being together. We found work and creative ways to make ends meet. We enjoyed the adventure of a new life in a new country. When my father alarmed us all by dragging himself home after injuring his leg in a mugging, he reframed his condition by saying, “Don’t worry about it! My other leg is fine!”

Looking back on my childhood, I realize that these experiences taught me that difficult times can be survived—and that I and my family members were stronger than we knew. They also demonstrated that “persistence counts.” Every day of living became a victory and, over the course of a lifetime, those daily victories added up to a better life.

In fact, the longer I live, the more I realize that my life’s most difficult circumstances also strengthened or benefited me in ways I didn’t understand or appreciate at the time.

For example, having to work my way through medical school as a pharmacist gave me the knowledge of chemistry that enabled me to create prescriptions that weren’t otherwise available for my dermatology patients. That knowledge eventually expanded into the creation of my skincare company, Murad.

Then, after launching my company, I tried the first-ever skincare infomercial. It was a financial disaster. Yet the experience taught me a lot about messaging and marketing that I applied to my second infomercial, which was a success.

More recently, I experienced a health crisis that could have resulted in my total blindness. In fact, I had become blind in one eye, although I didn’t know it, due to a condition called pseudo-exfoliation (which is an ironic diagnosis for a dermatologist)! The condition not only resulted in detached retinas in both my eyes, it could also have resulted in glaucoma and blindness. I was fortunate that surgery successfully reattached both retinas—as well as repositioned the lenses—so I kept my sight. The long recovery process, however, required that I keep my chin on my chest for six weeks. I was unable to turn my head or look around and was so bored I thought I’d go crazy!

Fortunately, my wife suggested that I take up the painting I’d enjoyed during a weekend workshop we’d taken together. She bought me some supplies and for the next six weeks I discovered my passion for creating art—an activity I never would have pursued if the circumstances of my life hadn’t forced me into it. I’ve since created more than 600 paintings, which fill the walls of my home, the Murad offices, and decorate Murad Insights.

All of these experiences have helped me to realize that even life’s most difficult circumstances offer us something. They challenge us to make us stronger. They present us with new information that can serve to redirect us. They make us realize how precious our loved ones are, which helps us to cherish each moment we get to spend with them. They shock us into appreciating how much of our health we take for granted: our abilities to see, to talk, to walk, to feel. In fact, after 81 years I’ve begun to consider that the challenges in my life are not happening to me; they’re happening for me. I just can’t see far enough into the future to know how.

Since adopting that attitude, I’ve begun to reframe unwelcome circumstances as gifts I don’t yet understand—but will. I have a little more trust that, like athletes whose muscles are sore following a vigorous workout, the stresses I’m experiencing will make me stronger, or more appreciative in some way. While I may not like the circumstances, I can appreciate the coming benefits. For this, I am honestly thankful.

May you reframe and rewrite the unwanted circumstances of your own life, knowing they are preparing you to handle any hardship.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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