When Blessings Go Missing

Sometimes it’s hard to count blessings. Being sad beyond belief, grieving the loss of love through death or divorce, watching as a friend or lover suffers unspeakably from a medical condition, it’s hard to “see the bright side.” It is at times like these that you must “drop your gloves” (as they say in hockey) and fight for your happiness.

The sense of loss you’re experiencing is tied to a blessing that has gone missing. Be it health, love or security, that missing blessing hurts.

The antidote is like an inoculation. You must disappear more blessings, at least for a moment or two, to be able to recapture their worth. Like taking in a small amount of germ to build up a resistance, taking in a little more pain – in the form of imagining blessings to have gone missing – will help you remember what you do have.

In psychological terms this is called “mental subtraction,” and studies have shown it is more powerful than simply adding up what we do have.  Why? Because it works against our normal tendency to adapt to the good things in our lives and take them for granted. Mental subtraction allows us to recapture the magic of just how wonderful the things we have in our lives, but may have become used to, actually are.

How’s your health? Imagine for a moment that you had to live with constant pain, with frequent visits to the doctor, with the side effects of medications. How’s your job? You have one? Imagine the stress and the strain of trying to figure out how to pay your bills without a steady income? How’s your relationship? Imagine that person gone from you. Who would you tell your day to?

So many of our blessings become hidden from us by familiarity. Removing the blessing, even as a thought experiment, and then reveling in its return can help to offset the other areas of a life that is strained.

Imagine having to walk for miles just to find clean water. Imagine having to ride a bicycle to work because they’re no other way to get there. Imagine having to walk around with a mask on your face because the air in your town is so dirty. When was the last time you counted so many of the blessings you’re taking for granted?

Psychologists don’t know if you can adapt to mental subtraction. But if you save it for those desperate times when blessings truly do go missing to help put some perspective back in terms of what’s good about your life, you’re probably safe.  And don’t always focus on the same blessings when it comes to doing your mental subtraction. Vary the blessings you eliminate from your life, and then get busy counting those blessings again.

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Gail Vaz-Oxlade

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16 Responses to “When Blessings Go Missing”

  1. Interesting! I thought “I’ve seen something like this before,” so I dug through my bookmarks. Found it: Stoicism. http://boingboing.net/2010/10/27/twenty-first-century-2.html

    From the article:

    “I also started making use of the Stoic technique known as negative visualization: I would periodically contemplate the loss of the things and people that mean the most to me. Thus, when parting from a friend, I might make a mental note that this could conceivably be the last time I would see the friend in question. Friendships do end, after all, and people die suddenly. Doing this sort of thing may seem morbid, but the practice of negative visualization is a powerful antidote to a phenomenon that will otherwise deprive us of much of the happiness we could be enjoying: negative visualization prevents us from taking for granted the world around us and the people in it.”

    So you and the psychologists are getting on board with c55AD philosopher Epictetus!

  2. Sometimes when I feel down, I will say out loud.., “Somewhere in Africa, a mother is holding her child who is starving” and I instantly get a perspective of how lucky I am. We can always have it worse than we do. Thanks for the reminder, Gail.

  3. There is a song lyric I hold in mind for times like these – “Someone somewhere around the world would love to have my first world problems.” – Matthew Good (Omissions of the Omen)

  4. My husband is in the military, and as a result is away for training, courses and deployments. I am regularly put in the situation of missing the blessing of having a beloved spouse, and my children regularly miss out on having a loving parent, as part of our day to day routine. When he is away, I come to realize the multitude of things he does for us: from big things like cooking supper to little things like telling a joke to make us all laugh when we are still half asleep. I think it has made our relationship stronger in some ways, because we value the joy of simply being together.

    Gail, this is the first time I have seen this sort of experience described so well in writing. Thank you for articulating it so well. Familiarity can breed contempt unless we step back to see things for the blessings they really are. Thank you!

  5. Let’s not forget Carly Rae Jepsen’s lyrics, “Before I had your in my life I missed you so bad.” An ode to her boyfriend.
    Perhaps we could visualize what it might feel like not to have health insurance like so many folks in the US. It would scare the health right out of me :) Makes we want to hug the Health Minister here.

  6. This reminds me of a time when I failed a difficult exam. I walked out of the exam nearly crying. I went for a walk to clear my head. On the way I walked past the children’s hospital. I saw a woman holding her tiny bald toddler with a face mask on, outside the hospital. I’m autistic, which means that I often have difficulties understanding other people’s feelings. I have had behavioural therapy to talk me through understanding another person’s feelings, and one part of that is to sit and consiously try to work through what a person would be feeling. It is a practice I highly recommend whether you have autism or not (I got my parents to try it with each other, and my mom says it helped their relationship).

    I took a seat outside the hospital and I thought about that child and then his mother. That one moment has become a defining moment in my life. To this day I think about that child, and I hope that he got better.

  7. When I was going through my marriage break down, I would always tell myself, “My children are healthy, I am healthy, nothing else really matters”. I do know people that are struggling for their child’s life on a daily basis. Everything else can get better, and it did. I thank God for my marriage break down everyday. My life is so much better, and fuller. I am me again.

  8. This post speaks volumes to me. My boyfriend was in a car accident this past summer and the accident killed his best friend and critically injured himself- both of them 25 years old. My boyfriend has since made strides in his recovery, but he has suffered a brain injury from the accident which will always leave him a bit of a different person than he was before the accident (although he is back to about 95% “old” boyfriend, there is definitely that other 5% that noticibly changed him forever).

    When the going gets tough and the days are long and the suffering persists and my heart hurts more than words can even describe, I think about how close I was to losing him (he legally died and got brought back to life that day)- having him never walk, talk, breathe, laugh again… and it puts everything else back into perspective. It puts LIFE into perspective. We are all SO lucky to have love, and life, and health… you just truly never know when it will all be taken away from you. Your age or your background or your character doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to be “your time.” Count your blessings not only daily, but hourly. And learn to love the life you have NOW, no matter how good or bad it appears on the surface.

  9. And it’s good to see that others ca count their blessings while helping those who don’t seem to have any. Below is a FB link about a NYC cop who paid for boots and gave them to a shoe-less, homeless man living on the streets.

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=388162557927199&set=a.274991665910956.65258.262068223869967&type=1&theater

  10. I enjoyed this post and all of the comments. @ Samantha…I think you should start a blog! I always learn so much from you. Thank you.

  11. Wow – so many great comments here today! @ Lisa and Kelly – congrats on your positive spins on difficult times in your lives!

    I love this blog today Gail! I can relate so much (and to what Samantha said too). When I find myself complaining I ask myself how I would feel if something was missing and it usually smartens me up. Ex. if I have a moment where my kids are driving me crazy, I remind myself of those who have either lost a child, never been able to have one, or have one suffering and it sobers me up so quickly! Instead of losing my patience, I count my blessings that I have happy healthy children!

    Giving is definitely a good way of realising this too (as someone mentioned earlier). I am constantly reminding my kids that there are people less fortunate and Christmas is a great time of year to show them generosity and kindness by giving a toy contribution. They pick and I hear them saying the blessing back to me (“Mommy we are lucky because….”). Priceless

  12. Yes, that’s the great thing about a blog run by a smart yet practical and caring person. I love the postivity, but also the insights that you get from this!

    I think I have come along way in my journey, yet I believe there is ALWAYS something to gain when your ears (or eyes) are open.

  13. Hi Gail,
    I’ve recently discovered your website and have enjoyed reading your blog. Your post yesterday on missing blessings is bang on. I have often done this when things don’t turn out as hoped. It is a good way to put things into perspective.
    By the way, I was in your 1993 prenatal class at North York General so our daughters are the same age. You hosted a get together at your place in Toronto after all the babies in our prenatal group were born. We lined the babies up on your couch for a priceless photo. My baby, Jaimie, was the only one not dressed in a pretty outfit. She was the only one wearing a sleeper. She is doing really well at university and we are proud!
    Take care and keep up the great work!
    Kim A.

  14. Hi Gail,
    Thanks for your blog. My husband and I have a habit of asking each other what we’re grateful for each day in honour of staying aware and present to what we are blessed to have. It’s often people in our lives, but also tools that allow us to stay in touch and connect with those people such as our technology, our home and our vehicles.

    I wanted to write to say we’ve read your books, we’ve watched your show and we have made major change! THANK YOU. We were not the worst (no store credit cards or anything), but we were overspending. Over the past year we have started an accounting system where we track everything and it really only takes about 1/2hr-1 hr per week and we went from spending sometimes up to $1000 more than we make per month to staying within budget.

    We did so well we were even able to purchase a second property and renovate it (with doing much of the labour ourselves and bartering for good deals). Now we’re in the black each month and there’s enough set aside for our security and also for me to take my husband on a trip to celebrate my 30th bday in 2013.

    YOU ROCK GAIL. Bless you for your good work and if you ever start a mentorship program, we’d love to help other couples get things working in their lives and finances.
    -Erin

  15. Thank you, Gail. May you and all of your readers be blessed over the holiday season and in the upcoming year.

  16. I was recently told that I am being layed off. I was rather devistated by the news that was delivered so bluntly after I was so sure that I would stay after the downsizing. I had told my self that I had done everything right, never said no to overtime, working my full hours, not extending my breaks, giving 100% and if I was giving less than I worked a little longer to make up for it. Unfortunatly none of that mattered as decisions were not based on performance. When I started to come to terms with the news (about a week later) I made a list. It was a new take to the pro and con list. One one side was all the “not good” things I would have experienced if I had been able to keep my job, such as working all that overtime, away from home for 2+ weeks a month, doing a job I don’t like… The other side has all the positives of not keeping my job such as meeting new people, trying a new type of work (I am 24 and have not really figured out what I want to do), being able to be home more, ect. It really helps the contranst by doing negative about what I lost and positive about what I got.

    By the way, I have a savings fund that will cover my living expenses for six months, a very generous severance package, and have secured a part time job starting January 7th. While I still get bouts of uneasiness and not wanting to face the uncertanty and change, things are already looking up and I have yet to complete my last day!

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