Inspiring * Transformational * Courageous * Personable


Wake Up and Shake Up- It’s About You!

Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough. -Oprah Winfrey

Growing up as a normal kid in the United States, I was preoccupied with normal kid stuff. I wished we lived in a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood. I wished my dad wouldn’t drop me off at school in the biggest, reddest, ugliest station wagon ever known to man. I wished my mom would buy me clothes like the ones the other girls wore, instead of used clothes from garage sales.

I wished for a lot of things I didn’t have but thought I needed until we’d take one of our family vacations to visit relatives in Nicaragua and Colombia. Like magic, my materialism and envy would be replaced with appreciation and perspective. But just like any artificial high, the gratitude buzz would wear off after a few weeks back home, and I’d fall back into my rut of always wanting more.

But a visit to Nicaragua my sophomore year of high school stuck with me. On this particular trip, we arrived with bags full of clothes, shoes, household items and school supplies. You see, whenever we went to visit family, we took as many suitcases and bags as the airline would allow, each one packed to the weight limit. Before each trip, my mother would call the family to get shoe and clothes sizes for the younger cousins, school supply needs for the older cousins, and requests for medicines from my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Then, for months before we’d leave, my mother would rummage around every drug store and discount retailer for the best deals. You never went back to the homeland empty handed, and you usually returned with only the clothes on your back. That’s just the way it was.

When we arrived at my grandfather’s house, three of the younger cousins met us at the door, dressed in their Sunday best, hair slicked back, big smiles on their faces. Yep, they knew we were coming! My mother reached into the bag and pulled out the first thing she came across: a package of colorful pencils. As she gave the children a pencil each, their eyes grew wide with excitement. Then they ran screaming into the other room to wake up their father and show him the pencils. We could hear them literally jumping on his bed and talking so fast you couldn’t understand their words. Never mind that the bag was full of toys and clothes; they were happy with what they had. They played in the courtyard with their pencils, and when it was time to eat lunch, they each held a pencil in one hand while they ate with the other. I wouldn’t be surprised if they slept with those pencils – to them, the greatest gift on earth.

I was older by this trip, so I really took the time to observe everyone around me. All my family in Nicaragua worked very hard, and most of my cousins were either in high school or college. But nobody was wealthy by any standards. Nothing was thought of as disposable. Everything had a use and was used until it couldn’t be used anymore. The men took pride in caring for their twenty-year-old cars that sometimes needed to be jump-started. They put new soles on their old shoes and shined them up. And no woman ever left the house without makeup and eyeliner, no matter how old and worn the purse was that she clutched under her arm.

My aunts were like most busy working mothers, devoted to their homes, their families and their careers, rarely taking time to pamper themselves. So, when we arrived with gifts of purses and clothing, they glowed with genuine happiness like little girls trying on whimsical dresses at a costume shop. Then their eyes welled up with tears as they hugged and thanked my parents for showering them with such luxuries.

I noticed that my teenage cousins weren’t preoccupied with the things my friends and I back home thought were important. They never complained that they were 16 and didn’t have a car, or that they didn’t wear the latest styles or the best brands of clothes and shoes. No children whined about not having the latest video game. It was as if I was briefly living in an alternate universe where people were actually happy and grateful for what they had! The spirit of gratitude that my family taught me on that trip is still with me today.

When I compare the trip I took to Colombia this summer to the trips we took during my childhood, one thing remains constant:  Even though my family and friends down south don’t have as many material possessions as I have here in the U.S., they get more enjoyment out of what they do have. They don’t see themselves as being deprived or lacking in things. They choose to be grateful for what they do have, instead of dissatisfied with what they don’t.

Those of us in the wealthier, industrialized nations of the world call countries like Colombia and Nicaragua “third world countries” or, when we have to be more politically correct, “developing countries.” And yet, I believe the people in these countries are, in many ways, more advanced than we are. I think about the emptiness so many of us feel, the mountains of debt we accumulate to get the bigger car, the need we have to dress our kids in the finest clothes, and it saddens me.

I’m just as guilty as the next person of wanting more than I have and not appreciating what’s already in my closet, my garage, my house, my life. I have to constantly remind myself to step back and practice gratitude. I remember those little kids who were truly overjoyed with a colored pencil and didn’t expect more.

They are examples of what living with gratitude is all about. I’ve made the commitment that my kids won’t grow up looking down on kids whose clothes aren’t as nice or whose houses aren’t as big as other kids’. I want my boys to appreciate what we give them and never take it for granted. And I don’t want them to become disconnected from the struggles of people in other countries. You bet I’ll drag my kids to Colombia and Nicaragua as often as I can, just as my parents did with me. I want my children to experience firsthand the lessons I learned about gratitude. That way, when they come back and sit in their desks at school, they can privately smile at each other while the boy next to them complains that he didn’t get the scooter he wanted or the girl behind them protests that her cell phone isn’t as expensive and glitzy as her friend’s.

Putting things into perspective is key when we need to find gratitude for our lives, even on the toughest days. My mother always told it like it was. She didn’t sugar coat things when she wanted to get a point through my thick skull. She’d often tell me, “Everybody has problems. And no matter how many problems you may have, there will always be somebody else out there who’s worse off than you.” I miss those reminders. But she was right. There’s no room for pity parties, no more excuses to make more excuses. My life is wonderful as long as I see it through the eyes of gratitude.  I hope you can do the same.

About the Author
In 1995, Mercedes Ramirez Johnson narrowly survived a commercial airplane crash that killed 160 people, including her parents. As one of only four survivors of this tragedy, she vowed that she would make her second chance at life count…and that she has – not only for herself, but also for the tens of thousands of people who have heard her story and her message.

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