The tendency with the annual Thanksgiving Day story is to offer something of a cliché, something you’d expect to find in a television show where everything is neatly wrapped up in 30 minutes.
Life isn’t that neat.
You see, humans aren’t hard-wired to be grateful, something I learned from a neuroscientist at the University of Portland. Part of our protective DNA, Sarina Saturn told me, is this human tendency to count curses instead of blessings. That’s part of evolution, forcing people to focus on threats that could lead to extinction.
Our brains seek out the worst. In prehistoric times, the threat might have been a woolly mammoth. Today, it’s comparing yourself to others. A friend got a year-end bonus and you didn’t. Your vacation at the beach pales next to the trip your sister took to Europe. Your cozy apartment seems too small after your friend announces he just bought a house. We ruminate, which Saturn said causes neurotransmitters to play havoc with us, making us feel down, not worthy, and focusing on what we don’t have in our lives.
Grateful? Are you kidding?
But we can change the way we think.
“While studying neuroscience, I was initially focused on wiring leading to destructive behavior,” said Saturn, an instructor of physical science at the University of Portland. “I later looked at what I call the science of gratitude, where we can counteract the lure of the dark side by focusing on our blessings.”
It takes work.
“Part of my daily routine is counting my blessings before I sleep and again when I wake,” she said. “I’ve shared this with my students, and I’ve encouraged them to do the same. When you consciously practice, it becomes part of who you are.”
Her hand slipped and she fell backward. Just 10 feet, but she injured her spinal cord.
After hearing this, I wanted to talk with a woman who I thought would have nothing to be thankful for. That’s why, a week before Thanksgiving Day a couple years ago, I found myself in the living room of a Southwest Portland apartment waiting for Brook McCall to emerge from her bedroom.
She arrived in a wheelchair.
Eighteen years ago, Brook McCall was 22 and a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Late one evening she arrived home and found herself locked out of her new apartment. A next-door neighbor suggested she climb from his balcony to hers. Her hand slipped and she fell backward. Just 10 feet, but the impact burst the vertebrae in her neck and injured her spinal cord. “When I landed, my arms were extended out,” she said. “Only, I was on my stomach. It didn’t make sense. I could not move my limbs, yet I thought they’d fix me at the hospital.”
She has quadriplegia and feels nothing below her neck. She requires 24-hour care. Her aide, who lives in another room in her apartment, helps her dress, bathe, and eat. She brushes McCall’s teeth, puts her to bed, gets her up, positions her in the wheelchair and then pushes McCall. “This was a terrible blow to my life,” she said. “But I found a greater purpose.”
I asked her something that seemed preposterous: Was she thankful?
She nodded and smiled. “How much time do you have?”
She doesn’t gloss over the long journey, the hospitals, the therapy, the dark moments of doubts, the pain — both emotional and physical — and the feeling that her life, in a very real sense, was over. Doctors told her it would be best if she remained at home with her parents in their San Francisco home where they could care for her for the rest of her life.
One day, she forced herself to think not about the bad, but about the good in her life. “I decided to go back and finish college,” McCall said. “Everyone had lowered expectations for me. I told everyone I was doing it.”
She’d studied anthropology but became fascinated with how the body worked, enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and graduated with a major in science. She lived on campus with an aide, paid for by California funds to help disabled people live independent lives.
After graduating, she moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned a master’s in public health. Later, she moved to Portland, accepted a fellowship at OHSU Hospital, and worked in labs and clinics.
When the fellowship ended, McCall was hired to be the grassroots advocacy manager for the United Spinal Association, and later moved into the role of director for their tech access initiative. She now works with Google, Verizon, Microsoft, and tech industry leaders designing everything from voice-activated virtual assistants to autonomous vehicles and augmented reality. In her role, Brook is able to create opportunities for people with disabilities to be heard and valued. She telecommutes out of her apartment, using Social Security benefits to pay a portion of her aide’s salary, the rest coming out of her pocket.
“I’m never going to be wealthy,” she said with a laugh.
While talking to McCall, I thought about what Monica Mueller had told me. Mueller, an instructor at Portland State University with a doctorate in philosophy, said gratitude comes when people turn away from the pursuit of possessions and acknowledge the greatest gift of all is that of life.
We believe there is a perfect life, but the truth is, we all live lives full of hopes and dreams, disappointments and setbacks, joys and pains.
“Because I’m aware of mortality, I decide each day what this life of mine is all about.”
And yet it is life.
I asked McCall for her perspective, asking that she teach me something I could not find in any classroom but that seemed precious and real as Thanksgiving Day approached.
She fell silent, the apartment so quiet I could hear McCall’s aide in the other room. I wondered if I’d asked too intimate a question.
She finally spoke. “I can dwell on bad things,” she said. “Breakups in relationships. I wonder if, as a woman, I look good. I miss my independence. If I was cured today, I’d go on a long drive by myself.”
I spotted a small photo in a frame behind her. It was a little girl holding a cat. McCall told me she was the girl in that photo. I walked over to it, picked it up, and studied it, looking into the eyes of this child, her whole life in front of her, and then I turned to a woman in a wheelchair.
“Oh, yes,” McCall told me. “Most people just do life without thinking. Because I’m aware of mortality, I decide each day what this life of mine is all about. When I do that, I see all that makes me thankful: kindness, the presence of people who spend time with me. Their patience and mine. Humanity.
“I like my life,” McCall said.
She smiled at me.
“My life will get better, but not in the way you think I mean,” she told me. “I’ll continue to gain more wisdom. I will learn more about myself. I will find ways to help more people. That’s what makes me thankful.”
She had plans for Thanksgiving. “I’m going to be with my friends at their house,” she said. “They’re great chefs.”
I stood, time to go, and I asked if I could touch McCall’s hand, because she was unable to shake mine.
“Of course,” she said.
She looked me in the eye, my hand lingering on hers. “Thanks for coming,” she said. “I hope you found what you were looking for.”
Tom Hallman Jr. has written for The Oregonian, Esquire, Men’s Health, and Reader’s Digest.
This article is featured in the November/December 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Benjavisa Ruangvaree Art / Shutterstock