How Growing Up in Poverty Taught Me Gratitude

04/17/2015 11:09 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

Gratitude is that sweet spot of contentment that knows nothing of having more or less, feeling only the peace of each precious moment, despite what is going on all around us. I learned gratitude not by what I had, but by what I did not have.

My mother -- a child of the depression, with two Italian immigrant parents, and eleven siblings living in Maine -- lived in a deficit all of her life. She learned gratitude at a very young age. At times her gratitude may have teetered on wanting more, but she would always fall into that soft place of being grateful for things that others may have taken for granted. She used to say she had lived in so many "cold barns." She was always sure to remind her six children to be grateful for our "home" in the projects, where heat was more plentiful than food.

After leaving my alcoholic father, six children in tow, we made the move to the other side of town into subsidized housing. My mother exhibited no shame (at least none that she showed), simply gratitude for her new found independence in a newly built, warm home. It may have been the projects, but it was a castle to her -- and to us. It was a four bedroom, two bathrooms, two levels, new construction home, which was much more than she had ever hoped for. No mortgage, no problem. In her eyes it was, and always would be our home. She was a humble woman who grew up by humble means, and she seemed to be okay with that. I never heard her once complain about not being a homeowner or owning a fancy car. I mean she didn't even drive! This generation of women rarely did. My mother had grown up with such scarcity in her life that any small, beautiful "thing" she could afford was sacred. Her gratitude shone like a full moon on a dark night -- and boy there were plenty of those.

As a counselor, it is intuitive for me to help people connect to their gratefulness. Despite the hardships of their lives, I help them to see the hope and beauty all around them. Hope -- the very best friend of gratitude -- is the reason we all get up in the morning and the reason we go to bed at night. Most people that I see in my counseling practice experience much despair, the direct opposite of hope and gratitude. Despair is a thief of gratitude, hope, joy and love. Yes, love also lives within the light of gratitude. Feeling gratitude is equivalent to the hot, soaking sunlight drenching into your face on a cold winter's morning. And there are lots of those here in Maine.

Yet when things get tough, gratitude is pushed aside like an old pair of shoes. It becomes so easy to sit in the misery of our icy cold despair, rather than holding close the warmth that gratitude has to offer -- it's really very silly when you think about it. We choose pain and misery over comfort. You know the negative internal dialogues we consistently have with ourselves? These thoughts are so powerful, evil usually is.

Love is much stronger, or so they say. The work I do seems to be more about helping others find that strength -- their gratitude. When we lose a loved one, we will grieve and all feelings must be felt -- painful experiences are part of life. Feelings come and go, but it is the undercurrent of a perpetual state of gratitude that will continue to hold us up, and close when the going gets tough.

Growing up in poverty, experiencing hard times over the years, and the ultimate suffering and loss that will sometimes accompany mid-life has not taught me to be bitter. These experiences have taught me just the opposite. I am grateful for most everything; for a warm home on a cold winter's day, to which I enter the house thanking God -- just like my mother use to do. I am grateful for my health -- especially after losing my mother -- but not before watching her body betray her, disease taking her piece-by-piece.

I am also grateful for the silly little things we all moan and groan about. You know those long, brutalizing trips to the grocery story, complaining about the cost of food, carrying so many bags of food into the house on a below zero degree day, alone, because no one's home, cooking dinner after a long day at the office, or that trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night, we "hem and haw," and "hem and haw."

But then humility sets in, and before I know it, I'm relishing in several moments of gratitude with my mother's voice bellowing in my ear. Whenever I complain, it always starts out and sounds like this: Thank God that you can still walk through the ice and snow to work, to earn the money to pay for that car, that food, home, and ahhhh, yes, let's not forget the abundance of heat. I am living and breathing, eating and sleeping, loving and living a precious life, and, dare I say, I am doing all of these things in a much better position than I could ever have dreamed possible. I have climbed out of the trenches of poverty and, unknowingly, used the daily practice of gratitude as my staircase to do so.

My gratitude experience was born out of pain, loss and despair -- knowing what it's like to have nothing, and to feel like nothing. Gratitude was and continues to be my strength and encourager; my "beacon in the night." Gratitude cheers me on as I continue to work my ass off to know more, to achieve more, and to help more. I know what it feels like to need and want; ironically that is where gratitude is born and continues to live, and for that I will always be grateful.