Nearing the end of one of the more challenging years most of us have had in quite some time, the last thing we need is a lecture about gratitude. And yet, as we approach the Thanksgiving season here in the U.S., I can’t help but challenge myself to consider what exists in my own life for which I should give thanks.
I often say to my family and colleagues, “Stress is a choice.” And it is. I remind them of this because in education or simply life in Silicon Valley, stress can sometimes feel like a badge of honor. It’s almost as if, “You aren’t stressed? You aren’t working hard enough.” In recognizing that it is a choice, we are set up to choose something different than stress. By the same token, I think most of our ‘states of being’ or emotions are also a choice.
As I navigate a global pandemic and contentious threats to our democracy as a citizen, father, husband, and school superintendent, I ask myself, what states of being am I choosing and how do those emotions impact me and those around me?
It’s natural and justified for me--for anyone--to feel stress, anxiety, resentment, and frustration during this time. I have certainly experienced my fair share of these emotions this year. But when I go to the balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (my life), I can unequivocally admit that those are emotions in which I do not want to stay, live, or communicate with others. I don’t have control of what happens in the world, but I do have control of how I respond to it.
I am justified if I lament how difficult my job is right now.
I can be forgiven if I rant about how unfair it is that my kids and I have to stay home, not travel, see friends only outside (even if it is raining), and the like.
I won’t be alone when I scream at the TV watching news of the chaos in Washington or post a snarky comment on my personal social media.
I can expect that my wife and I will blow up at one another occasionally as the weight of it all feels too much.
When those understandable reactions surface, I can receive them as feedback that it may be time for me to also focus some energy on the good, the right, the kind, the hopeful. I can choose in those moments or some moment thereafter to be grateful for what is also true.
I am grateful for teachers and support staff and their representative unions in our school district for working together with our Board and administration in good faith to get schools open, mitigate risks of virus spread, and stand in the face of fear to teach in person or otherwise create remarkably successful virtual learning.
I am grateful that we have not yet had to layoff one employee due to the pandemic’s impacts. I’m even more grateful that we’ve been able to hire individuals who’ve lost other jobs to assist us in our safety procedures.
I am grateful that my children and their peers are making learning progress despite all the challenges.
I am grateful that I have the choice to send my children to school in person or keep them home if my risk tolerance is lower than others.
I am grateful that I have a job that I love and that I can still work and provide for my family when so many others have lost theirs.
I am grateful that our local leaders are making the right decisions in the best interest of our citizens and that, together, our community works to reduce risk and follow recommendations.
I am grateful that I do not have COVID. That my family has not gotten COVID. And that I can say with all confidence that because of the therapeutics now available, my access to high quality health care, and the availability of good research-based information if I do get COVID, I am likely to survive it with few complications.
I am grateful that I still have the right to vote and that my voice was heard in this last election.
I am grateful that our democracy, as of now, has held up against some of the greatest challenges it has faced.
I am grateful that my family who, in good health and good will, will join together over Zoom at Thanksgiving to celebrate all that we have been given and which we often take for granted. And, I will do so in a warm home, with an abundant feast, surrounded by those who call me Dad and husband.
All these things are not guaranteed. They are gifts, all of which I could easily overlook if I spend all my time lamenting what I’ve lost, what’s been turned upside down, what’s not within my control this year.
As hard as this year has been, I have much more to be grateful for than I do to rage against. What about you? What’s your state of mind these days? As you go up to your own balcony (objectivity) and look down at the dance floor (your life as it is right now), what do you see? Are you living in a constant emotion of disequilibrium? Might you also benefit from a reset toward gratitude? If so, I invite you to do so; in fact, I join you.
May you and yours have a blessed, relaxing, and safe Thanksgiving Holiday.
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.