How a Grateful Heart Can Lead to Surprising Joy
by Diane Noble
My heart pounded as the technician strapped my head into position on the concave molded plastic and then secured the MRI mask over my face. Within seconds, I was inside the machine and the banging, clicks, and grunts began. I closed my eyes and tried to think of anything but where I was—in a North Carolina hospital undergoing tests to determine the cause of my leg tremors, frozen shoulder, and weakness on my right side.
A few hours later, my husband and I sat across from my neurologist and received the dreaded confirmation: Parkinson’s Disease. Tears filled my eyes. My father had Parkinson’s. I knew what lay ahead. For me. For my husband who would become my caregiver.
It’s been seven years since the day I now call my “burning bush” moment. The moment when I turned my attention to God wholly and completely. Even as I moved through stages of grieving for the “me I used to be” and the “me I thought I’d always be,” I was being drawn deeper and deeper into God’s loving arms. Slowly, He began to reveal, and I began to accept, that Parkinson’s wasn’t a curse. It was a gift that I could embrace it as part of me, not as an alien invader.
To my beloved Father, I was beautiful and whole, not broken. He even gave me a new name, Bella Pietra, or beautiful stone, that I use in my quiet time with Him.
A gift? How can a progressive neurodegenerative disease possibly be thought of as a gift?
Many of us have relatives or friends with Parkinson’s, or perhaps the disease is our own constant companion. We may experience worsening symptoms along with fear, anxiety, and depression. Our hearts ache for loved ones who can no longer walk as they once did, or cannot move at all, for those who cannot communicate, have difficulty eating, or who are discriminated against because strangers don’t understand or think of them as drunk.
How can a person with PD be grateful? It sounds impossible. I’m the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers. But I’m trying my best, day by day, moment by moment, to live the truths in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.”
What exactly is this gift? Joy. Not a bubbling, effervescent joy, but a deep and ever-present joy that resides in the depths of our being. Joy doesn’t happen. It walks hand-in-hand with gratitude.
But how, in the midst of a frightening diagnosis or other difficult circumstance, can someone develop a heart of thanksgiving? Here are a few steps I’ve discovered. (And I’m still learning.)
Cherish each moment of every day. You’ll never live this moment again. Stop and breathe deeply no matter where you are. Cherish life, your every breath, your beating heart. Embrace your life, just as you are.
Find joy in the ordinary. While sitting on your porch or taking a walk, enjoy the way sunlight strikes a leaf or the petal of a flower. Watch a hummingbird hover and circle. Listen to crows talk to each other. Watch and listen in wonder.
Laugh as often as you can. Look for humor in all circumstances. Chuckle at yourself when things go awry. (And they will, trust me.)
Immerse yourself in music. Dance if you’re able. If not, close your eyes and let your spirit dance.
Find five things to be grateful for each day. Write them down (or record them verbally) and review them on your dark days.
Tell someone you love them every day. Show them, too. Pick a rose or other flower from your yard and place it on your loved one’s pillow. Write or record a letter for your spouse, friend, or grandchild.
Phone someone who needs cheering. Listen to them with compassion and understanding. Do more listening rather than talking.
Take time to play. Be a kid again. Call a friend who has a convertible and the time to drive you, and take a joy ride. If you’re able, ride a bike in a safe, flat place. Find a pet—your own, a neighbor’s, or even one at an animal rescue shelter—give them cuddles and strokes and talk to them softly. These furry friends are non-judgmental and don’t notice or care about tremors, stiff hands, or PD posture.
Be creative. Studies have shown that people with Parkinson’s suddenly develop artistic talents previously undetected. Some become poets, others writers, some go into painting or drawing. What intrigues you? Follow your passion and enjoy something delightful and unexpected that lifts your spirits.
Be your own caregiver. If God thinks of us as amazingly created (Psalm 139), if He rejoices over us with singing (Zephaniah 3:17) how can we not accept ourselves as worthy of some TLC of our own? Do you need rest? Take a timeout and enjoy a nap. Eat healthy meals with plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Read and exercise, even if it’s a slow walk. Exercise your brain. Accept your physical limitations and don’t take on more than you can handle. Avoid stress. Play.
Make time for prayer and meditation, morning and night. These times of intimacy with God give us strength to keep going. We will better sense His presence as we journey through the day. If you find it difficult to talk to Him openly about your feelings, i.e., those little spurts of anger or dark days of depression, pray the Psalms, focusing on those that move from darkness to light, from weeping to rejoicing.
Six months after my PD diagnosis, my annual mammogram and subsequent tests found that I breast cancer. I underwent a mastectomy followed by many challenging, questioning, and sometimes dark days afterward. Last December, my husband suffered a major stroke, and I became his caregiver as he continues to recover.
More than ever, I am convinced that gratitude equals joy. Even during times of fear and anxiety our God is with us, helping us discover the gifts that can be found in His presence: His comfort, His peace, and yes, His joy.
Diane Noble is an award-winning novelist of over two-dozen novels. She has recently become an advocate for people with Parkinson’s, helping individuals discover for themselves how gratitude can equal joy in their lives. Diane and her husband live in California.
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