“I had a terrible week,” an associate wrote me late last week explaining why some commitment would take a little longer to deliver. While my initial impulse may have been to respond by describing my own week, I simply expressed sympathy for whatever she had faced and asked if the commitment was still possible and if so by what revised date.
Rarely do we know what others are going through — what challenges they face, what mishaps they encounter, what hardships they endure, what tragedies fall in their paths. But I’ve long ago come to the realization that it’s not a competition. One person’s “terrible” is not diminished by another person’s worst week ever.
But I will share some of my week with you. There was the frozen cold water pipe leading to the kitchen sink during subzero temperatures in Boston that resulted in a half-hour perched in the basement on top of a plastic garden tool case so I can reach the pipe and heat it up with an electric heat gun trying very hard not to burn the house down. There was the moment when I check the Nest thermostat app on my phone to see if heat was still on in the house and getting a message that left me wondering if the heat was off or if Wi-Fi was out. (It was the Wi-Fi. The heat was fine.) There was the navigation system in the car turning off with the message that the temperature was too cold for it to operate, leaving me to wonder if I had the same option.
And there were the moments I worried as much as I’ve ever been worried about anything whether my son would survive the heart attack he suffered and come off the ventilator he’d been on for a day-and-a-half that felt more like weeks. Because of the heroic efforts of my daughter-in-law closely following the 911 operator’s instructions about chest compressions, my youngest granddaughter directing the ambulance driver to the correct house, speedy work by the EMTs, the wisdom of the cardiologists, the kindness and attention of ICU nurses, and the throngs of support from friends and family, my son is now home and on the mend.
For all that, I along with many others whose lives he continues to touch, I am grateful. Gratitude strikes me as the right thing to hold in this moment.
He has no memory of this, but when he first regained consciousness after coming off the ventilator, I mentioned to him that I had given his youngest daughter some of his favorite poems to read to him as he recovered, including Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” Almost before I got the title out, he said, “Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests; snug as a gun,” the first lines of the poem. My eyes welled up.
In Oliver Sacks' 2015 book “Gratitude,” which was released shortly after his death and that he had written knowing he was dying, he writes: “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”
I had a terrible week last week. Yours may have had moments of terribleness as well. But especially given how things turned out, my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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