Every year, I attend the last church service of the year. At the end of December, the minister asks us to write down all the things we want for the coming year. We then draft a letter to ourselves that we will receive a year later (sent back to us by the church), in which we thank the universe for already having received all the things on our list. “Thank you for the new job that I love,” “Thank you for helping my family get along,” “Thank you for selling my home at the right price,” etc., etc. We write down what we want, decide that we are going to get it, and adopt the gratitude that comes with already having it.
Three weeks ago I received the letter I wrote on Dec. 29, 2011. As always, it is interesting to read what was important to me a year ago and of course, to see what came to fruition and what did not. This year, three and a half out of a list of 27 things came to pass. About 15 no longer mattered to me, and there were eight (and a half) things that I still want but have not yet been able to make happen. Probably the same numbers as if I had not written the letter, but an interesting and useful exercise nonetheless.
Last month, however, as I looked over my list, I was struck with a different kind of gratitude than the kind of usually feel when I read my letter from myself. This time, while I was of course grateful for what I did get and what did happen, I realized that I was, oddly, more grateful for what I did not get, and what had come as a result of not getting what I wanted.
To begin with, because of what the universe so kindly denied me, I was forced to grow in ways that I could have never imagined or wished for. I might have wished for the growth, but I never would have chosen the path by which the growth came. It was because of the things that I did not receive that I learned my most important lessons and was able to change and evolve. By not getting something that was on my list, I was pushed to find out why I felt I needed that particular thing, and the experience I believed that thing would bring to my life. In other words, I was able to discover what I was really craving. As a result of not getting what I wanted, I was able to address the emotional nourishment that I actually needed, and to provide for myself in ways that would not have been possible had I received the actual thing itself. In another example, by not getting what I wanted, I was able to realize that I really did not need it at all, that I was actually okay without it. This allowed me to let go of a long-held belief that I could not do without this particular thing. Consequently, I learned I was far stronger than I had thought — and indeed whole, with or without my desired things.
In addition to the lessons we get to learn, having to do without forces us into the lucky experience of absence. “Who would want more absence?” you might ask. The beauty of absence is that it provides us with the opportunity to meet ourselves. Doing without opens the door to discovering who we are under all the things we want. When the noise quiets, we can meet who’s listening in the silence — who’s there to get or not get. When we don’t get the things we want, ironically, we are offered the gift of experiencing our own presence, our human being-ness. In truth, we need nothing to be happy but we need something to be sad.
In the end, what we call “getting” so often does not come from getting in the way we think of it. We may not have gotten what we thought we wanted, but instead we got the opportunity to become a new person — a person we never would have become had we gotten what we wanted. We can’t want something we don’t know is possible, until it happens. So, too, not getting gives us the chance to meet ourselves, to discover who’s here under all the things we want.
The next time that we think about what we have received, let us investigate what is really true, beyond just our checklist of things. We are trained to be grateful for getting the things we want, but we can and need to become equally grateful for the things that we don’t get, and the wonderful and unexpected opportunities and gifts that those absences bestow upon us — the presents and presence that we could never have seen coming.