THE BLOG
11/25/2013 05:22 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Grateful for the Lemons Life Gives Us

"Oh, I'm a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love."

- Pearl Jam

At Thanksgiving, we normally express our gratitude for the bounties of life: family, friends, and living "the good life." If we ever decry life's hardships, it's only in the context of Grandma's admonition to, "Count your blessings -- whatever hardship you have, someone else's life is worse." But being grateful for hardship? Unheard of and possibly un-American! In our 24/7 news cycle, we bemoan hardship -- illness, disease, typhoons, poverty, greed, meanness and Washington dysfunction. And we're immobilized by it.

Maybe our culture can use a boost from the Chinese. You see, in the nuances of the Chinese language the symbol for crisis is the same as the one for opportunity. In that spirit, maybe Thanksgiving can be an annual opportunity for us to press the reset button on our lives -- collectively, nationally and individually -- and say that, whatever our circumstance, we can seize the day to shake out of our complacency, grow and do better.

Some may say that this is just form over substance, but I would say that this is a cognitive shift, a game-changer that would enable us to take charge of our lives -- for victims to become their own rescuers, for parents to become better listeners, for teachers to become better leaders, for politicians to become better -- ah -- statesmen, and for the sick to help themselves heal. Since cognitions -- the ideas in our minds -- are the building blocks for our actions, changing our perspective can restore meaning, purpose, wellness and true gratitude in our lives. Whatever our circumstances, we have the opportunity to grow and improve the world. And in the process, we will improve.

I discovered this right around Thanksgiving, 1992. After having built a successful consulting and insurance career for sixteen years, I fell ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an immune dysfunction that saps energy, inflicts body aches, and feels like the worst flu you ever had. There was no gratitude that Thanksgiving because I was suffering, and my world was bleak. Unable to work, I was hopeless, helpless and depressed. Like Bill Murray's "Groundhog Day," every day played out the same.

Until one day when I decided that God was giving me an opportunity to grow, to be a better person and to improve the world. We do have the expression in our society, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." That's what I decided to do, and -- despite my aches and pains, brain fog, inability to work, and on-going depression -- I was determined to be grateful, focus on the positive, and see a higher purpose.

It took me a year-and-a-half to reset my life, drown out my negative thinking, see the possible, focus on love and change my attitude. As a result of my experience, my wife Susan, a clinical psychologist, and I co-founded Project Love, a character development program for teens to refocus themselves and their school cultures on kindness, caring and respect. My illness may have been the tipping point, but my attitude of faith, gratitude, growth and opportunity, empowered us over nineteen years to train nearly seventy thousand teens and three thousand educators to improve their schools.

Many others have made this jump to overcome life's "lemons" and benefit the world.

One example is Steve Gleason, whom I met a little more than a year ago. A former New Orleans Saints football star who symbolized hope after Katrina when he blocked a punt in the Saints' first game back in the Super-dome, Steve announced two years ago (at the age of 34) that he was battling ALS, the degenerative illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Since then, he's become confined to a wheelchair and has lost his voice, although he now speaks through a computer keyboard prompted by his eye movements.

Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready has described Steve as, "A man trapped in his body but not in his mind or his goodwill." That's because, despite his ever debilitating and discouraging circumstances, Steve has chosen to become the world's leading advocate on ALS, leading a global conversation and sparking research and therapies along with Dr. Ray Onders at University Hospitals of Cleveland.

In addition to his advocacy work, he has pioneered the idea of creating video journals for loved ones -- especially for his young son Rivers -- that create continuing messages, life lessons and expressions of love. On November 26th, the NFL Network will profile Steve's crisis, turned courage. On December 10th, Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation will honor Steve with our Rescuer of Humanity Award.

Being from Cleveland, I'm moved and impressed by the transformation Cleveland hostage Michelle Knight has chosen, turning her own captivity for thirteen years into a platform to speak out and give other victims hope. I also continue to be influenced by Aaron Feuerstein, former owner of Malden Mills, whose Polartec factory outside Boston -- employing 1500 workers -- burned to the ground just before Christmas, 1995. Despite advice from lawyers and accountants that his family cash in on the substantial insurance settlement, he opted instead to pay all his workers full wages and benefits while the factory was being totally rebuilt. The end result not only preserved jobs and saved Christmas, but also gave America an example of corporate kindness that has continued to inspire other CEOs for the past fifteen years through Project Love's Malden Mills Corporate Kindness Award. This year's award is going to Medical Mutual of Ohio's CEO Rick Chiricosta, who leads a company dedicated to treating people right and doing the right thing, strong core values that evolved from their own internal crisis many years ago.

How we each can lift ourselves above the fray -- life's circumstances, negativity and excuses -- is the true message of Thanksgiving that I see. Because, if we're truly thankful, then we will know that our lives have a higher purpose, and our expression of gratitude is to live out that purpose. Just as the Pilgrims and Native Americans celebrated together, we can acknowledge that there's joy and meaning in sharing, giving, and rising above any current crisis in order to grow. And in that growth -- and the opportunity to give -- we can solve all of our problems together.

Muszynski is Founder and CEO of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.purpleamerica.us.