69. The Gratitude Wave Pool

69. The Gratitude Wave Pool

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Gratitude Wave Pool

[Gratitude] allows us to reshape the meaning of any situation, so we can choose the perspective from which we view a joy, a sorrow, a disappointment — even success.

~Dr. Robin Smith

It wasn’t yet 8:30 a.m., but instead of entering my workplace, I was leaving it. Along with my purse and lunch sack, I carried a plastic shopping bag of my personal items — framed photos of my husband, my dictionary, ancient packages of microwavable popcorn, packets of tea, and other miscellanea collected throughout nearly four years. I could still hear the hollow sound of “goodbye” ringing in my head. I stumbled to my car, threw in my stuff, and drove home sobbing. I had just been fired.

A half-hour later, I pulled into my driveway still crying. I walked inside and sat down, my tears sporadically interrupted by silent moments of staring into space, forgetting to breathe. I called my husband’s cell phone. I knew he was attending a conference, but I had to call. When he picked up, I told him the news.

“I’m coming home,” he said immediately.

“Oh, thank you,” I said, sniffling, “but you don’t have to do that. I don’t want you to miss your conference. I just needed to talk.”

“No,” he declared, “I’m coming home. I’ll be there in half an hour.”

When he arrived, I was marginally calmer, but only because I’d taken my “as needed” prescription medication for anxiety. He drove us to a nearby café and consoled me as I ate a breakfast burrito. The melted cheese and emotional support were comforting, but just for a little while. Over the next few weeks, the aftershocks from being fired continued.

I was troubled by the repercussions of my termination: What about the people who would be affected by my abandoned projects? What about the critical job information only I knew? What would my co-workers hear, and what would they think of me? What about all those suddenly severed relationships and the people that I’d come to care about over the years? Would I ever get another job with this black mark on my record? For weeks I struggled with anxiety, shame, and sudden outbursts of tears. At night in bed, I fought alternating battles with insomnia and nightmares.

Over dinner on the patio of a bistro, I told three of my close friends how disoriented I felt. I was conscientious, hardworking, and honest, and being fired had come as a shock. I felt as if I’d been told I was going to jail — my first reaction was, “But that doesn’t happen to people like me! I’m not a bad person!”

As my friends and I talked, I learned that two of them had been fired before. The third friend had been, as she put it, “the equivalent of almost fired” when an employer was so dissatisfied he refused to pay her (though he later relented). I was surprised; I had known all of them for nearly a decade, and I knew they were good people, smart and caring. Clearly, my “fired equals bad person” thinking was flawed. It was reassuring to realize that these successful, kind people had firings in their pasts too.

About a month after losing my job, I read that Chicken Soup for the Soul was seeking stories on overcoming challenges. The submission deadline was a little more than four months away. There was no question my unemployment was testing my emotions, finances, and even my identity, but I hadn’t overcome anything yet. Then I realized something tantalizing: I had four months to turn my life around and share my story. Challenge accepted.

As I read the writing prompt — “What changes did you make to help you cope with these issues and turn negative into positive?” — I realized it was an excellent question. Although I was researching and applying for jobs, I could do more. I wrote down three additional goals: I’d go to a networking night, investigate continuing education, and start acknowledging the people who were helping me on my journey.

Easier said than done. I found an upcoming networking night and asked my friend Nicole to join me. She said yes, and I felt relieved and hopeful — until I read that the event was cancelled for that month and the next. We agreed we’d go the month after that, but my enthusiasm waned. For my continuing education, I researched opportunities for classes on graphic design software and social media. Although I discovered useful articles online, I had yet to find the low-cost overview training I wanted.

Thankfully, the third of my goals was easy to achieve. I decided that once a week for ten weeks, I would handwrite a thank you card to someone who had helped me either with the emotional support of losing my job or in my search for a new job. Each week, as I pulled out my box of thank you notes and put pen to cardstock, I was inspired by others’ generosity. In addition to having a financially and emotionally supportive husband, I had references who would praise me if called by potential employers, family who sent encouraging cards and e-mails, and friends who helped me network and sent me job leads. Writing thank you letters kept me feeling positive, mindful of my blessings, and grateful — emotions easily lost in the face of joblessness.

My friend Nicole had done an enormous amount for me, and she got my first thank you card. Black ink filled the page as I tried to squeeze in a comically long list of all the ways she’d helped. Feeling appreciative, I mailed the note and didn’t think about it again until about three weeks later, when I got her e-mailed response:

“I was never into giving or getting thank you cards until we started hanging out. I wasn’t against them exactly, just sort of thought of them as frivolous. Now I am starting to see how valuable they are. I have one from you posted in front of me at my work desk, and it has a list of ways you saw me supporting you through this job loss mess, and it makes me feel appreciated and noticed. But in addition to feeling appreciated and noticed, I get to see the good stuff you liked RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME. It is a reminder of the ways I can be a good friend (to you). I didn’t do any of the things you listed because I thought I was ‘supposed to,’ but I can see from your list that I did things you appreciated. This means so much to me.”

I was delighted to get Nicole’s message. Soon after that, another friend battling her own unemployment thanked me for writing to her. Like a wave pool of gratitude, the thankfulness that flowed outward was rippling back to me and lifting me up. Writing thank you notes was the best thing I could have done to dissolve my negativity and move forward.

Shortly before my self-assigned weeks of note sending were due to end, I got a job that fit my skills and interests. I also made a decision: I would continue sending thank you cards until I had sent all ten. My happy ending wasn’t only being employed, it was putting on a swimsuit and jumping into my gratitude wave pool.

~Alaina Smith

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