This is my favorite story about letting go. Although some of you may already be familiar with it (I told it in Codependent No More), I’m going to tell it again.
Many years ago, when I was married to the father of my children, we bought our first house. We had looked at many houses with nice yards, family rooms, inviting kitchens. The house we actually bought wasn’t any of those. It was a rundown three-story that had been built at the turn of the century and used for rental property for the past twenty years.
The yard was a sandlot where there should have been grass. There were huge holes in the house that went clear through to the outside. The plumbing was inadequate. The kitchen was grotesque. The carpeting was an old orange shag that was dirty, stained, and worn out. The basement was a nightmare of concrete, mildew, and spiders. It wasn’t a dream home. It was more like a house you’d see in a horror show.
About a week after we moved in, a friend came to visit. He looked around. “You’re really lucky to have your own house,” he said. I didn’t feel lucky. This was the most depressing place I had ever lived in.
We didn’t have money to buy furniture. We didn’t have the money or the skills to fix up the house. For now, that run-down barn of a house needed to stay just like it was. My daughter, Nichole, was almost two, and we had another baby on the way.
One day, right before Thanksgiving, I vowed I would take some action to fix up this house. I got a ladder and some white paint and tried painting the dining room walls. The paint wouldn’t stay on. There were so many layers of old peeling paper that the paint just bubbled up, and the paper— at least the top three layers of it—came loose from the walls.
I gave up, and put the ladder and the paint away.
I had heard then about practicing gratitude. But I didn’t feel grateful. So I didn’t know how gratitude in this situation could possibly apply to me. I tried to have a good attitude, but I was miserable. Every evening after I put my daughter to bed, I went downstairs into the living room; then I sat on the floor and looked around. All I could do was feel bad about everything I saw. I didn’t see one thing I could possibly be grateful for.
Then I ran into a little paperback book that espoused the powers of praise. I read it, and I got an idea. I would put this gratitude thing to a deliberate test. I would take all the energy I had been using complaining, seeing the negative, and feeling bad and I’d turn that energy around. I’d will, force, and if necessary fake, gratitude instead.
Every time I felt bad, I thanked God for how I felt. Every time I noticed how awful this house looked, I thanked God for the house exactly as it was. I thanked God for the current state of my finances. I thanked God for my lack of skills to repair and remodel the house. I deliberately forced gratitude for each detail of my life—those areas that really bothered me, those things I couldn’t do anything about. Every evening, after I put my daughter to bed, I went down and sat in the same spot in the living room. But instead of complaining and crying, I just kept saying and chanting, Thank you, God, for everything in my life, just as it is.
Something began to happen so subtly and invisibly, I didn’t notice when it first began to change. First, I began keeping the house cleaner and neater, even though it was truly a wreck. Then people, supplies, and skills began coming to me. First, my mother offered to teach me how to repair a house. She said we could do it for almost no money. And she’d be willing to help.
I learned how to strip walls, repair holes in walls, paint, texture, plaster, hammer, and repair. I tore up the carpeting. There were real wood floors underneath. I found good wallpaper for only a dollar a roll. Whatever I needed just began coming to me, whether it was skills, money, or supplies.
Then, I began looking around. I found furniture that other people had thrown away. By now, I was on a roll. I learned to paint furniture, refinish it, or cover it up with a pretty doily or blanket. Within six months, the house I lived in became the most beautiful home on that block. My son, Shane, was born while I lived there. I look back on it now as one of the happiest times in my life. My mother and I had fun together, and I learned how to fix up a house.
What I really learned from that situation was the power of gratitude.
When people suggest being grateful, it’s easy to think that means counting our blessings and just saying thank you for what’s good. When we’re learning to speak the language of letting go, however, we learn to say thanks for everything in our lives, whether we feel grateful or not.
That’s how we turn things around.
Make a list of everything in your life that you’re not grateful for. You may not have to make a list; you probably have the things that bother you memorized. Then deliberately practice gratitude for everything on the list.
The power of gratitude won’t let you down.
Being grateful for whatever we have always turns what we have into more.
God, show me the power of gratitude. Help me make it a regular, working tool in my life.
From the book: More Language of Letting Go
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