I was lucky to spend an afternoon a week with my grandfather during the last three years of his life. When I was young, he taught me how to fish and how to fly a kite. But it was his final lesson that changed my life: Living in gratitude.
He was in his 90’s and always smiling. He was always whistling and pointing out amazing things in his world.
I would eat lunch at his retirement community every Tuesday. And every single time he would graciously ask the server to read off the list of dessert options. “Did you hear that? FIFTEEN choices. I’ve never had it so good!”
In 2007, when he was 94, his body began to fall apart. I remember visiting him at the hospital when he was in pretty bad shape. He had tubes in his arms and he had lost weight. But when I visited him, the first thing out of his mouth, in a barely audible voice, was, “The doctors treat me so good here. Modern science is miraculous. What an adventure!”
My grandpa passed peacefully and beautifully a few weeks later. But that moment of gratitude from his hospital bed has stayed with me. In a moment when he had 1,000 things to complain about, he focused on the good. In what could have been a cold dark night, he marveled at the stars.
During those last three years, he told me plenty of stories. About the time he worked with Martin Luther King Jr. About the time he ran for office. About the time he traveled the world with Grandma. (Actually, he told me these same stories quite a few times.) Years later I realize that it was never the subject of the stories that mattered, it was the profound gratitude he expressed. It was the childlike wonder that kept him in a place of saying frequently, “Every day is a GIFT!”
I realize now that it is this mental discipline that determines the degree in which you enjoy your life. It is so simple: Focus on the good.
But in our modern world it isn’t simple at all. Our advertising bombards us with the message that we are not enough and we do not have enough. Or news relentlessly tells the story of doom and fear. It is no wonder that so many of us struggle with unhappiness and depression. It takes a committed practice to stay focussed on the good. (Or frequent visits to an especially magical Grandpa.)
But since Grandpa is no longer here physically, I developed a little trick to snap myself into the Grandpa mindset. It is called, “Crap or Cone.”
Visualize yourself holding an ice cream cone in one of your hands…and with dog crap on one of your shoes. This is the state of our lives at every single moment.
At every moment there are aches and pains, work to be done and people who don’t like you. At the very same moment, there are gorgeous flowers, laughing babies and your favorite foods. There are always both. And the degree in which you live in Heaven or Hell is determined by where you place your focus.
This is not the same thing as pretending that you have no problems. Time and energy should be put towards addressing the crap on your shoe. (My grandpa spent a few moments EVERY DAY writing his congressional representatives. But he didn’t spend the rest of the day complaining about the issues.)
The problem comes when we make our lives all about the crap. And in a world so focused on problems, that crap-focus is an easy trap to fall into. In fact, it is scary how often you will see people set down their cone, take a huge whiff off their shoe and demand, “Oh this is horrific…you have GOT to come smell this!”
Some people will argue that focusing on the good is simply not facing “Reality.” But reality has almost an infinite amount of things for us to pay attention to. Yet, our lives have a finite amount of moments. Where we place our focus is everything.
When you start practicing focusing on your cone, you start to realize just how much there is to be grateful for. So much in nature. So much in our own bodies. So much in our fellow human beings. We are practically swimming in an avalanche of ice cream.
So next time you find yourself stewing in upset, poking at the crap on your shoe – pull back and see if you can find the cone. There is so much to be grateful for in every moment. It just takes some practice to discipline our focus.
Someone asked me this week, “You must really miss your Grandpa?” I couldn’t help but smile. Nope. He is a part of my overflowing cone, every single day.
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John Halcyon Styn is the author of, “Love More. Fear Less.” & hosts a “Heart Recalibration” podcast called HugNation every Tuesday. To see some video wisdom from Grandpa Caleb check out John’s recent TEDx talk (embedded above).