Tuesday 18 December 2018

Katie Byrne: Most of us still don't realise just how good we've got it


Holly Butcher had a rare form of bone cancer
Holly Butcher had a rare form of bone cancer
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

An 'attitude of gratitude' has emerged as the antidote to modern ills in recent years.

Down in the dumps? Focus on what you have rather than what you don't have. Dejected or rejected? Start a gratitude diary and literally count your blessings.

We've come to realise that gratitude is a tremendously transformative state of mind, yet even in a culture of giving thanks, most of us still don't realise just how good we've got it.

Earlier this year, a letter written by a dying woman went viral.

Holly Butcher, 27, from New South Wales, Australia, had a rare form of bone cancer and, before she died, she wrote a parting letter and asked her parents to post it to her Facebook account.

Butcher's words are powerful - and well worth reading during the times when you need to gain a positive perspective.

After all, it's one thing being told to 'live every day like your last'; it's another thing entirely when that advice comes from someone who hasn't got long left.

"I hear people complaining about how terrible work is or about how hard it is to exercise," she wrote. "Be grateful you are physically able to. Work and exercise may seem like such trivial things... until your body doesn't allow you to do either of them."

She also had advice for those obsessing over the fundamentally inconsequential.

"Your new fake nails might have got a chip, your boobs are too small, or you have cellulite on your arse and your belly is wobbling," she wrote.

"Let all that s*** go. I swear you will not be thinking of those things when it is your turn to go. It is all SO insignificant when you look at life as a whole."

The moving letter, which was shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media, left a mark on anyone who read it, just as the parting words of Emma Hannigan did a month later.

"Faced with very little time, can I tell you what screams out at me?" asked the late author. "Love. Nothing else has much meaning any more. Just for the love I feel for the people I hold dear."

Those who have been confronted with the abrupt finality of death often gain remarkable clarity and perspective.

Or as Mitch Albom put it in Tuesdays With Morrie: "The truth is, once you learn how to die, you learn how to live."

Indeed, Albom's book, a chronicle of the time the journalist spent in the company of a man dying from ALS, is the work that most of us remember when we think of personal perspectives on dying.

Incidentally, ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, which was named after the legendary New York Yankees baseball player who faced down the neurodegenerative disease with a now famous speech at Yankee Stadium.

"I might have been given a bad break," he said to the packed-out stadium, "but I've got an awful lot to live for."

In later years, Randy Pausch's 'last lecture' had a profound effect on anyone who heard it. The American professor delivered the speech a few months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and the book of the same name went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

"The key question to keep asking," said Pausch, "is are you spending your time on the right things?"

Of course, some people only come to that realisation when it's too late.

Bronnie Ware tapped into our existential fear of deathbed regret when she wrote The Top Five Regrets of the Dying in 2012.

Ware worked in palliative care for eight years and gathered the reflections of hundreds of patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives.

None of the patients had regrets about the status they didn't achieve or the objects they didn't acquire.

On the contrary, the most common regret was: 'I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.'

Her patients also wished they had had the courage to express their feelings and the readiness to let themselves be happier.

'I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends' was another common theme, while 'I wish I hadn't worked so hard' was the prevailing regret among her male patients.

You'll notice that none of these people talked about bucket lists or YOLO travel experiences.

Faced with approaching death, they were filled with immense gratitude for the little things we all take for granted. Bedbound, they realised the gift of mobility and independence.

It might seem terribly morbid to dwell on the parting words of the dying, but their unique perspective has a lot to teach us.

Likewise, you might argue that 'it's all relative', and our trivial worries are just as relevant - but that's only true of the times when we choose not to live compassionately and expansively.

As the proverb goes: "Give thanks for a little and you will find a lot". When we read about the experiences of the dying, we realise that we have a lot to be thankful for - we're alive, after all.

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