We all have times in life when we were forced to learn lessons the hard way, often in situations where we were absolutely humbled. A lot of these happen early on in childhood, but even so, I find that there are some lessons I am still learning to this day. I am trying to improve, trying to get better constantly.
One of these childhood lessons for me was a year when my family was tight on money and was forced to combine Christmas with a mid-year back-to-school resupply. It was a really bitter pill for my sister and I to swallow. Most of our gifts were stationary items like bags of rubber bands, Post-Its, staplers and packs of staples, some of which I’m still finding unused in boxes to this day. I think we were told beforehand not to get our hopes up for that years' gifts, and that cash was tight. Knowing what to expect (or in this case what not to expect) helped soften the blow a bit, but it was still a huge challenge to receive these items gratefully. I vaguely remember trying the best I could to bottle my emotions, but it was difficult. It was impossible to convey at the time, but it was just one of many of life’s disappointments, something we had better get used to early on.
The moment where it really broke down for me was later that day, where my patience ran out. My sister and I received gifts from our uncle, who had apparently been informed of that years' stationary-themed Christmas. My sister and I opened up our wrapped gifts to unveil… packs of scissors!? We both erupted and directly insulted our gifts right in front of our uncle, who to his credit kind of just laughed it off. My dad had to take my sister and I aside for a serious talk. We were told to apologize and never to treat someone like that, especially someone who had just given us a gift.
I think the thing that really resonated for me was when my uncle said something to the effect of “Well, where’s my gift? You guys [my sister and I] didn’t give a gift to me?” with a pretend pouting. This was enough for me to recognize the logic of the situation: how ridiculous for me not only to complain about my gift, but to have the entitlement to expect a gift without even giving a gift back! This put together all the dots for me to realize in my own head my selfishness. (I can blame this particular incident on being a kid without cash to spend for gifts. But I still struggle in general with being charitable and gift-giving to this day).
This was the first of many lessons in being humbled in life. In short: we are not obligated to receive anything at all. The universe owes us nothing.
I have been trying to recognize this at least daily, because I think it’s a healthy reminder. One way my good friend does this is by saying a short prayer and crossing himself before receiving a meal, which I have really admired. Following his example, I try to now say a short quiet prayer of thanks on my own. In Japan there’s also a similar tradition of saying “itadakimasu” before a meal, roughly meaning “I humbly receive”.
I think this is the right approach to life in general as well. A meal is definitely a good time to pause and be grateful, even for something that may be mundane and boring. The reality of the situation is that we are not guaranteed any food at all. The universe is definitely not required to provide it for us. Our food today may be exceptional or perhaps it may be mundane, but either way there is the recognition that it will fill our stomachs and give us nutrients to sustain ourselves. We should always be thankful for this.
When I woke up this morning, still half-asleep with dreams still echoing, I learned a new lesson. I realized that the day ahead of me is something similar to a meal, something that I was about to receive. Something I had received many times before. And I was entitled to none of it, yet I miraculously received it anyway. It was a blessing that I was able to experience all these past days, and it is now a blessing to anticipate the upcoming day.
When waking up, perhaps I should be thankful that I hadn’t died in my sleep, that I lived through to see the morning and receive warmth of the sun again. Maybe I need to say a small prayer at the start of the day in humble thanks for the day I’m about to receive.