I remember the way the night sky looked right after the horrific car accident. I was in eighth grade at the time, but I can still see the way the stars glinted like shards of diamonds through the smoke of the burning cars. I couldn’t believe that I had just crawled out of the smoking car. That I could still move. That I could still breathe. That I could still look up and see the branches of a tree glowing in the light of the moon.
I had literally seen my life flash before me. Suddenly, the life that I had taken for granted was a sheer miracle. I was not only alive, I was whole. I had emerged from a totaled car with just a few cuts from the broken glass, and as young as I was, I knew that this was an undeserved gift. My hands. My feet. My sight. These were all suddenly sufficient reasons to be overjoyed and immensely grateful, to thank God every moment for giving me my life and then returning it to me again.
Sometimes I lose touch with this memory. I forget what the stars look like the second after you almost die. I forget what it feels like to have happiness distilled into such a simple, expectation-free formula: appreciate what you have.
Dr. BJ Miller’s story brought me back to the power of that kind of gratitude and taught me so much more about what it means to appreciate the gift of life. Dr. Miller is a palliative care physician who has dedicated his life to helping people navigate the process of dying in the hospice that he directs. BJ lost three of his limbs when he was tragically electrocuted when he was a student at Princeton. Faced with a drastically different future than he had imagined for himself, BJ began to search for what it meant to be “him” with just one arm left. He began trying to figure out what he was living for.
After a few months of isolation in the burn unit, BJ began to discover a secret to ongoing gratitude in life: the small things aren’t so small.
The first time that BJ became acutely aware of this secret was a couple of months after his accident. There wasn’t even a window in his hospital room so he hadn’t seen the seasons change from autumn to winter and one day a nurse brought him a snowball. In BJ’s words:
“It was snowing outside, and I didn’t know that. I didn’t even know if it was night or day. This nurse had the bright idea of smuggling in a snowball to me, so that I could hold and feel the snow. It was so, man, it was just stunning. She put it in my hand and I just felt the contrast of the cold snow on my burnt skin. I watched it melt and become water. The simple miracle of it was just a stunner for me. And it really made it so palpable that we as human beings, as long we are in these bodies, we are feeling machines and if we’re cut off, if our senses are choked off, we are choked off and it was the most therapeutic moment I can imagine. And I would never have guessed this but just holding that snowball- first of all the sensation but also the implied inherent perspective it helped me make- that everything changes, snow becomes water, and that it’s beautiful because it changes. That things are fleeting, and it just felt so beautiful to be part of this weird world at that moment. And I’ll never forget what it was like to hold that snowball.”
BJ has taken that perspective and built a life dedicated to helping people appreciate their lives even as they are dying. To figure out a way to live in each moment and recognize how extraordinary the “little” things really are. BJ says that even today, decades after his accident, he feels blessed just to feel. “I get thrilled that I can feel anything. Sometimes even pain. I remind myself sometimes how amazing it is to feel anything at all.”
We think that being grateful for the little things is a cliché or a waste of time. How wrong we are.
We can get so distracted by routines and obligations and “big” things in our lives that we think that being grateful for the little things is a cliché or a waste of time. How wrong we are. In the morning after I pray, I write down three “little” things that I am grateful for. Air. Water. Food. Birds. Trees. I started doing this about half a year ago and it has transformed my life. It reminds me at the start of my day that the small things really aren’t so small.
BJ’s words remind me of that moment after my car accident when I was sitting on the curb on the side of the road and looking up at the stars. He writes:
“The small things ain’t so small actually. Just the joy of feeling anything, of having a body at all, being capable of movement at all is so profound. It’s so potent, and yet most of us take that for granted. Most nights, you can usually look up and find a star. Look up. Ponder the night sky for a minute. Realize that we’re all on the same planet at the same time, and then you start looking at the stars and realize that the light that is hitting your eyes is ancient, that the stars that you are seeing may no longer exist by the time the light gets to you. And just sort of mulling the bare facts of the cosmos, for me it’s enough to just thrill me, awe me, freak me out and kind of put all my neurotic anxieties in their proper place.”
Sometimes we get a gift. We get a moment when we see past the surface and recognize what a miracle it is just to be alive. We get a gift that teaches us how to trade our entitlement for appreciation, our distraction for awe, our discontent for gratitude.
But we have to strive to hold onto the gift.
Look up. You can always find one star. And even though it looks like a tiny point of light, it can connect us to the infinite light within us all.
The small things really aren’t so small after all.