Fostering The Flip Side Of Gratitude
Cajoled into seeing a friend’s obstetrician—the one she praised so highly—I came prepared with a list of questions folded up in my jeans pocket. But I didn’t get a chance to ask my questions about a doula or the Leboyer method. The doctor walked in, greeted me and looked me over without performing an exam. Then he announced with certainty that I had “insufficient pelvic capacity.” He assured me that my petite size meant I would never be able to deliver a full-term baby.
“What do you mean?” I gasped.
“It’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “It just means you’ll require a cesarean.”
I was six weeks pregnant.
I may have been young and expecting my first child, but I dared to question his judgment. He became indignant. A lecture followed about the number of babies he’d delivered. He went on about anoxia and brain damage, then intoned the words that surely convinced legions of women before me: “Do you want to endanger the life of your baby?”
That was all it took.
I never returned.
But how was this self-satisfied man to know if his assertion turned out to be valid? I didn’t get back to him. Nor did I refute the next obstetrician, whose office I also left after he told me my vegetarian diet would result in a sickly, underweight baby.
Although these physicians never knew if their dire predictions came true, I went on to deliver a 9-pound 10-ounce baby quite naturally. In subsequent years I had three more sizeable, vegetarian-grown babies.
On behalf of each of my children I learned to speak up—forcefully and often. This pushed me right past the shyness I thought was an indelible part of my personality. Once I became comfortable speaking up, I felt empowered to assert my feelings of gratitude as well.
A regular practice of gratitude boosts our health and well-being. Studies show that acts of kindness also create a ripple effect, generating more compassion in others. Sometimes it’s easier to thank those who are close to us, but it’s powerful to acknowledge anyone whose efforts make a difference.
My gratitude practice often takes the form of an appreciative letter to strangers. I leave a note for a waitress whose cheery demeanor has healed me of some common sadness. I send a letter to a nursing home administrator describing the tender affection I witnessed an aide show a patient. I send written kudos to the cast of a locally produced play. They don’t take long to write, although occasionally I have to make an effort to find out where to send them.
Not long ago I was delighted to finally locate the address of a local school bus driver. I regularly wait in my car as he stops on a 55 mph rural road and, in only a few moments, backs into a narrow entryway with the grace and dexterity of a ballroom dancer. So I wrote a letter to explain that seeing him drive with such skill gave me the sense that one day I too might develop true mastery in my line of work.
I never sign my name. I think it’s better to write “your customer,” or “a fellow traveler,” or whatever fits the situation. That way it isn’t about me, it’s about a wider sense of appreciation. Although I have to admit, I benefit too. Looking for the good in a situation changes my energy in a positive way.
But really, paying attention only to sweetness and light ignores the shadow. People in positions of authority need to know when their judgments or actions are harmful. All of us can learn from mistakes, unless somehow we’re deprived of the consequences of our words or actions. Today, many professionals are well insulated from those consequences unless they reach litigation.
I don’t advocate griping or threatening. I’m talking about communication intended to foster understanding. A simple letter can spare future clients, students or patients the same struggles your family may have endured. Of course this isn’t necessary when the situation can be handled right away. But how many of us have faced longterm predictions of doom? A family bed is nothing but bad parenting. Without this surgery you’ll end up crippled. Homeschool and you’ll have a maladjusted child on your hands. Ritalin is the only solution for that behavior. After years of hearing such pronouncements, I have come to realize that updating a professional on his or her assessment is another form of kindness. It’s the flip side of gratitude.
If you choose to get in touch with someone for these same reasons, here are guidelines that have worked for me.
Be clear about your own goals before writing that letter or e-mail. Wait until you can proceed without anger. The person you are contacting will be unlikely to learn anything unless you maintain a positive and respectful tone throughout.
Refresh the recipient’s memory, supplying information about your situation as it was when you were last in contact.
State clearly and kindly that, as a physician (or teacher, or therapist), he or she is in a position to help many people. You assume that as a matter of professional interest it would be helpful to know about the outcome of a situation he or she assessed.
Sticking only to the facts, explain how in your situation their judgment or actions were misguided. Then update with pertinent details.
If relevant, include research or other data which the professional can use to gain insight.
Wish this person well. Don’t expect or ask for follow-up contact.
The highest response to naysayers is to flourish joyfully in our choices. So I respond to those who predicted doom for my children who were held long and nursed often, to those who judged our learning and lifestyle choices harshly—we are well. For that, I’m endlessly appreciative.
Let’s try, whenever possible, to find the freedom right beyond the boundaries of old ideas. To do that we need to share the insight that comes from experience. There, even the flip side of gratitude turns toward wisdom.