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Gratitude for the Gifts of Life's Challenges

03/31/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2015

When I was 10-years-old, my baby brother was born. This blessed event threw me into a state of emotional turmoil. Feelings of love and hate raced through my mind like a brazen cat chasing a nervy, intruding mouse.

I adored this exquisite little brother and longed to hold and care for him. Simultaneously, I resented his arrival -- now I had to share my mother's overstretched attention with him and three other siblings.

To confess to feelings of "hatred" was out of the question. In a quandary about what to do, I resolved to keep a diary on a small pad of paper hidden between blue plastic covers. In silent, secret letters, I could express taboo feelings and thoughts, raw emotions, feelings of love, pride and resentment, as well as record my brother's milestones: the first day he sampled a banana, the morning he sat up by himself, the day he mastered his first steps.

The private confessor was magical in its ability to relieve distress, any time of the day or night. Giving form to these thoughts seemed to validate them and at the same time allow them to be tossed aside.

When I was 12-years-old, my parents separated. Once again, the writing tool seemed like a life jacket to buoy me over a raging tsunami. I could acknowledge my thoughts without having to share my feelings and possibly exacerbate my parents' tense situation.

I didn't understand how jotting down thoughts converted into relief and a sense of power and control until years later I discovered the work of the great philosopher and psychologist William James. James viewed the mind/self as divided into two parts: 1. the aspect (of mind) that participates and registers the experience in the moment and 2. The (aspect of) mind that reflects on the experience after it has occurred. In essence the writing tool was an expression, an expansion of the observer.

James' clarification of the mind split into experiencer and observer imputed an ability of power to control and the possibility of change. If a person revisited an event he might be able to see the role he played in it. Going a step further, she might perceive her potential to alter her behavior and affect a different outcome.

In the early days of civilization, we humans believed we were at the mercy of the gods -- they determined our fate. We couldn't conceptualize that we could control our destiny, at least to a certain extent. But the course of human development has shown us that we possess the power to change. The reflecting/observing part of our brain imbues us with this potential.

Along the lines of James, David Brooks, the New York Times journalist, wrote a column about a "sense of agency" that applies to people who recognize the control they exert in their lives. These people hold the reins and steer their life course. (I realized that the writing tool places a person in the driver's seat of her life, granting the ability to take charge.) By contrast a person who lacks "agency" feels jostled about, acted upon by outside forces, similar to how we experienced life in the days of early civilization.

Another turning point came when I was 20-years-old. I had just finished the first year of med school in Puerto Rico and had been living with my father and his family when, without warning, he announced that I'd have to move out. What seemed disastrous at first proved a great blessing.

At first, I thought about returning home to New York City, but I realized I'd be abandoning my goal to become a physician. I needed to reframe my approach to think more like a ballplayer and to keep an eye on the game in order to score. My goal was to become a doctor; my intention wasn't to live with my father.

I was most fortunate to find human angels in my path. In searching for a place to live, I knocked on the door of the YWCA on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Old San Juan. A kindly woman opened the warped, wooden door of the Y, a rambling unpainted structure that looked as if it might be blown away by the next big hurricane. I shall never forget Mrs. Rodriquez, a short, middle-aged woman with wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, a pixie face and twinkling brown eyes. When I explained my situation, she immediately recognized that I needed a quiet place to study and assigned me the only single room available. (Mercifully, the Y remained standing for several years for which we residents were infinitely grateful.)

Once out of my father's house, I was both frightened and thrilled to have freedom to come and go, no longer having to rely on Dad for transportation. Because of my pierced ears, brightly colored clothing and ability to enunciate Spanish phrases, I passed as Puerto Rican. I basked in my newly- acquired identity. Gaining facility with the Spanish language helped me communicate with Spanish-speaking patients once I returned to the States.

Another miracle occurred when I met an American physician who was vacationing with his family in Old San Juan; he wrote me a letter recommending me to a medical school in Philadelphia where I could move to be closer to my mother and siblings.

In summary I'm grateful for what I've discovered in the face of some challenging circumstances.

  1. The writing tool and the ability to observe myself.
  2. To think like a ball player, to keep an eye on the goal to overcome obstacles.
  3. The discovery of human angels who appear at unpredictable moments and add blessings, pleasure and excitement to the journey.

This blog post is part of a series for HuffPost Gratitude, entitled 'The One Thing I'm Most Thankful For.' To see all the other posts in the series, click here To contribute, submit your 500 - 800 word blogpost to gratitude@huffingtonpost.com.