The first course I ever took as an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara was a Black Studies Special Topics course. I sat in the classroom on my first day, anxiously waiting for the professor to arrive. I imagined he or she would be larger than life, a tweed-clad collegiate caricature, perhaps: inspirational, captivating, and dynamic, for sure.
And then the professor entered. He slowly made his way into the room propped up by a walking cane, dragging one leg behind the other. With slurred speech, he immediately explained to us that he had suffered a stroke which had left him paralyzed on one side of his body.
Turns out, this wasn’t his only hardship in life. Years prior, he had been exiled from his native country of Ghana for speaking up against the government. He eventually sought residence in the U.S. and became a college professor, where he would teach courses about various economic and political systems. Among his rather leftist ideologies, he often preached about the “evils” of capitalism, and although I didn’t agree with everything he had to say, he certainly opened my mind to understanding different world views.
Because of our professor’s disability, he asked that a student assist him to his car after each class. We took turns escorting him, and it was my turn the day before we left for Thanksgiving break. As I saw him off, I wished him a “Happy Thanksgiving,” expecting to receive a similar salutation in return. Instead, he slowly turned to me and said, “Look at me. What do I have to be thankful for?”
I was stunned. I had no words as I watched him make his way into his car. I walked away wishing I had said something, but I was too caught off guard. The truth was, I saw it differently. Here was a man who’d survived a major stroke. Yes, it had left him disabled, but even with that setback, he still managed to work as a college professor at a major California university. Although he had been banished by his native country, he had also been welcomed into a new country — one which would not only allow him the freedom to loudly voice all of his political beliefs (ironically, even those which might be considered largely “un-American”), but also be paid for teaching those beliefs. How could he not see that?
Years later, I would gain empathy as I faced my own life-questioning demons: illness that would leave me with my own (albeit, different) disabilities and lead me to question my life purpose. There was a time when I felt like I had lost almost everything, and when going through such dark times, it’s easy to become immersed in self-pity and forget to be grateful. It would take years of suffering, but eventually, I would learn to see things very differently. It was adversity that forced me to make positive changes in my life and reminded me to appreciate the simple things I perhaps once took for granted: the support of family and friends, a comfortable home, access to necessary medical care, and access to the foods that would become my “medicine.” No, life would never be the same, and life would never be easy. But if it wasn’t for the hardship, I might not see each day as a gift.
If I could go back in time to that moment with my former professor, I would have a clear response this time. No doubt, this man had faced undeniable tribulation, but consequently, he had also received some remarkable blessings. I wish he could have acknowledged that he did have something to be thankful for on that November day, and if there was one more blessing I could wish for him today, it would be the ability to see that.
Whenever I find myself giving in to feelings of self-pity, I try to remember this and the fact that gratitude is a choice. Sometimes life is brutal. Sometimes, life kicks us when we’re down. But sometimes, it all comes down to how you look at it.
Wishing everyone many grateful reflections this Thanksgiving holiday…and everyday.