While I was at a dinner party, making small talk about ObamaCare and the Red Sox, I met a retired third-grade teacher who had competed in seven Iron Man triathlons and athletic competitions that took her across America and Europe, from places like Hawaii to Paris and Sweden.
She was an unassuming woman in her late 60s with a collection of medals, trophies and awards that adorned her home. As we sat down for dinner, she shared her personal stories about swimming, cycling and running in what is one of the world’s most arduous sports competitions. And in a few weeks, she was going to begin training for her next triathlon.
But there was more to her story than athletic honors, I discovered. You see, she didn’t begin competing until she was 50 – and a breast cancer survivor.
Her parents, who were both athletes, clearly passed along great genes, but she hardly knew them because her mother died when she was 4 and her father died when she was 10, so she was raised in several different homes.
Nevertheless, she said she was "blessed" and thankful for the wonderful opportunities God had given her in life, along with the adversities.
When I heard about the challenges she’d confronted as a child and as an adult, and saw her enthusiasm and gratitude, it reminded me that every life is filled with joy and sadness, success and failure, and that the secret ingredient for spiritual success is to be thankful to Christ in all things.
Or, as Saint Paul told the Thessalonians, "Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus."
Like many others, I spend too much time grumbling about my personal situation, wishing I had more of everything and envious that the other guy got more than I did in brains, looks, ability and wealth. (Did I forget anything?)
There will always be people with more and less than you, but the important thing is to have the attitude of gratitude and the ability to say "thank you" for what you have.
As the poem "Desiderata" says, "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."
When life brings us adversity and suffering, that’s when gratitude is especially important. The retired teacher found new meaning in later life, despite having cancer, and she thanked God for the opportunities she was given.
Thomas à Kempis, who wrote the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ, said: "It is good that everything is not always to our liking; for adversity makes people look into their hearts in order to realize that they are exiles and must not put their hopes in any worldly thing. Therefore, people should rely entirely on God so that they have no need to look for human consolations when adversity comes … then they understand the need they have of God and that without Him they can do nothing."
Very often when I encounter a person who is a powerful example, I’ll wonder, "Why can’t I be like that? How can I be like that? I want to be like that. I’m going to be like that." Not that I have any fantasies about competing in a triathlon – I’m such a bad swimmer that I would have to dog paddle – but there are other new horizons to pursue so that I can grow spiritually.
How many of us can continue to live a joyful, grateful life when we grow older, and infirmities and problems accumulate? It’s easy to become dour and discontented and only think about the good old days.
And sad to say, I’ve met quite a few young people who are dour and discontented, quite unlike this cancer survivor. I see them every day and wonder, "Is life that bad? Is it that hard?" And I hear a litany of complaints about student debt, finding a well-paying job and having to support the baby boomers with their Social Security payments.
It’s pretty simple. Whether you’re young or old or in between, you can’t give thanks if you don’t know what you have to be thankful for.
And you can’t give thanks if you don’t take the time to count your blessings – as our grandparents often said. "Counting your blessings" was part of the popular culture before the popular culture became characterized by chronic whining.
And as "Desiderata" says, "Be at peace with God … and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world."
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.