Gratitude. A simple word that holds the gift of forgiveness and connection to the present moment. Hard as I try, I don’t remember when I made the decision to live forward. What I recall is a conversation I had with my now departed dad in the summer of 1995. It was late one night as we sat taking in the breeze. He said: “We cannot take back a lot of the things we claim to be ours.” I remained still. He added: “You’ll need to decide how you live your life once you figure out those things.” And with that, he said goodnight.
I was just about to make an important decision that would forever alter the course of my life. There was no time to contemplate. I wish I had. Although I can’t be 100% sure what he wanted me to know, there are three things I’m certain I can’t take back. I continue to process and integrate these three things through the practice of gratitude.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes: “… remind yourself too that each of us lives only in the present moment, a mere fragment of time: The rest is life past or uncertain future.” It is said that we spend most of our time in our heads – either thinking of what we did or thinking about what could happen to us. What people think about is a stronger predictor of their state of happiness than the activity they engage in, according to this study.
Since the pandemic, distraction has become habitual as the mind wanders to many things, including worrying about others. The time we spend thinking about a past conversation gone bad or a potential risk that may happen cannot be claimed back. To strengthen my awareness of how I choose to spend my time, I keep a gratitude journal. In fact, according to this study, doing so heightens positive affect and acceptance. I’ve noticed a greater capacity to gently bring my mind back to “here” and to consciously choose where I go next.
Some decisions we make, and other decisions make us. The weight of this statement cannot be ignored. Each decision sets us on a life course that factors in and factors out opportunities, challenges, and serendipitous encounters. Although we cannot prevent the unfolding of experiences that come with a decision we make or someone else makes, we can prepare for the next decision by listening fiercely to what life is asking of us. To do this, I write gratitude letters to my past and to my future self.
Letters addressed to my past self are about forgiveness for any decisions that led me down difficult paths, whereas those addressed to my future self are about courage to face whatever decisions will be made for me. Later, I’ll pick one at random to read and I pay attention to the emotion or the thought that takes shape in me. I then remind myself that I can decide how I show up for the next moment of decision-making, regardless of circumstances.
In her poem entitled Life, Emily Dickinson argues that once a word is spoken, it takes a life of its own. Words can indeed heighten a sense of doom or a sense of comfort. There are three emotional systems regulated in our brain, triggered by what happens to us and what we tell ourselves. When my brain perceives a threat, it triggers the Threat-Detection System, and I will defend myself. When I am focused on a specific goal, my senses will be heightened by the Drive-Incentive System. Whereas the Soothing System is stimulated when I feel safe, calm, and happy.
What is truly remarkable is that all three systems can be stimulated by words. Although I can’t take back what I’ve said to others, I take ownership about my words going forward. My practice is simple: Each day I make a list of words that stimulate the Soothing System and insert these words in my speech and in my writing when connecting with others. Some of the feedback I’ve received from people include: shifting perspective on important issues, having courage to pull through challenging situations, and making profound changes in their lives.
Time is relative and it orients our stories of here and then, as well as the relationships we hold to those stories. We can change course with a new decision the moment we become aware that we are stuck in a story about ourselves and others. The practice of gratitude liberates our mind as it asks that we pay attention to what is occurring now and be thankful for what we are receiving – from the outside or within. This only strengthens our capacity to notice what more we can accomplish with time, decisions, and words.
Dr. Mirella De Civita has conquered academia and business, possessing a deep wealth of knowledge and an insatiable thirst for learning. She is President of Papillon MDC Inc., a management consulting firm that specializes in leadership development and Founder of Grand Heron International Inc., an on-demand coaching company with the aim of democratizing coaching. She holds a PhD. in Psychology and a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Behavioral Medicine. She is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, a Professional Certified Coach, Master Corporate Executive Coach, and a Certified Mentor Coach. Recently, she joined Marshall Goldsmith’s 100 Coaches.
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For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.