By: Seun Adebiyi
They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
That truth could not have hit me any harder as I looked out of the window on a dreary November morning at the intersection of 67th Street and York Avenue, watching busy New Yorkers clutch their coats and hats against the blustery wind as they bustled along the sidewalks of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
I used to be one more cardiomyocyte in that living, pulsing mass of concrete and flesh that is the heartbeat of New York. Now I stood alone in my hospital room on the leukemia ward of Memorial Sloan Kettering, with nowhere to be and nothing to do except wait for my next round of chemotherapy.
Thanks to my health insurance, I was receiving the best medical care that money could buy. Yet, gratitude was the furthest thing from my mind as I was strapped in front of a giant X-ray machine. Eleven times, it bombarded me with radiation that made my skin peel off when the nurses changed my bedsheets.
The woman I loved told me with tears in her eyes as she looked at my ravaged body, “I don’t think I’m strong enough.” I would have cried, but I didn’t have the energy. I simply turned my face to the wall and turned my back on her and the rest of the world.
That was in 2009. Ten years later, it’s November again. Far from America, where preparations for Thanksgiving are underway, I’m sitting cross-legged on a bed in New Delhi with my laptop. I don’t know how it still works, considering the abuse it’s been put through. You could say the same thing about my body.
I wiggle my toes experimentally. The soreness has finally receded.
I just returned from a 21 km pilgrimage around one of India’s holiest sites – Govardhan Hill. I came to India to learn how to better face life with courage and gratitude. During my trek around the hill, I passed several people with physical impairments that made me wince inwardly. Then I asked myself, who was suffering: them or me? They seemed cheerful, while I was anxious. They appeared at peace with the world around them, while I mentally rebelled at the injustice.
That mental resistance was the source of my suffering.
We suffer when we cling to fixed notions of how the world should be and refuse to accept reality as it is. We also suffer when we forget that reality is not static but fluid, ever-changing, like an eternal musical improvisation. I think gratitude comes from the ability to simply appreciate the melody of life without judgment, to look at its tapestry of inextricable joy and pain with childlike wonder.
I am grateful to be alive, 10 years cancer-free, able to roam the world and sustain myself financially without being tethered to a desk. I’m grateful for all the happiness and freedom that life has brought. Yet, I am also grateful for the suffering that broke down my self-imposed limitations and irretrievably shattered my fixed views on what it means to lead a successful life.
If I hadn’t undergone such extreme suffering then, I might have never known such freedom now. Without cancer, I might have had a fancier title, a bigger house, or a more expensive car—but I don’t think I would have been nearly as grateful for what I do have.
Gratitude is a choice to focus on what we have, instead of what we don’t. I feel gratitude when I have to limp on sore feet on the streets of New Delhi – too many less fortunate people living on these same streets have lost their legs. I feel gratitude when I’m in a remote Indian village, the power goes out in the middle of my workday, and I hear the hum of a backup generator kicking in to stave off my panic. I am so, SO very grateful for Wi-Fi!
Generosity and gratitude go together like turkey and stuffing. The more you give, the more aware you become of what you have, instead of endlessly chasing what you don’t. Gratitude is a “get out of jail free” card from the rat race, and generosity is how you share that sense of freedom with others.
May you and yours enjoy the blessing of gratitude this Thanksgiving season, no matter where you are in the world.
Seun Adebiyi has been cancer free for nearly ten years after receiving a stem cell transplant in 2010. He retired from sports after carrying the Olympic torch at the 2018 Winter Games, where Nigeria participated for the first time in history using the winter sports federation he had created while battling cancer. He also started Nigeria’s first stem cell donor registry, and is working on a project to recruit 100,000 more donors of African ancestry to improve the odds of black cancer patients who need stem cell transplants.
In his spare time, Seun has earned his yoga teaching license and pilot’s license, and is currently working on becoming a flight instructor. He is based in Atlanta but has been able to travel to Hawaii, Thailand, India, and other exotic locations thanks to a flexible work arrangement as an attorney with InCloudCounsel, which he describes as a “game changer” in the legal industry. “InCloudCounsel gives me the freedom to pursue my dreams and leverage my legal skills, without the constraints and inefficiencies of a typical corporate job.”
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