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December 01, 2018

Chair Column

Alexandria Hien McCombs, Humana, Irving, TX

Gratitude. The holiday season reminds us to be thankful for people and things often taken for granted, such as family, friends, food, clothing, and shelter. However, gratitude transcends mere acknowledgment of these blessings. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence describes gratitude as “a state of mind that arises when you affirm a good thing in your life that comes from outside yourself, or when you notice and relish little pleasures.” In other words, gratitude is relational; it connects us with our own sense of being and purpose. In fact, studies have shown that people who embrace gratitude enhance their overall joy and well-being and decrease feelings of depression, sadness, and loneliness.

How does gratitude move beyond a perfunctory “thanks” at the end of a human exchange? True gratitude triggers both an awareness and reflection on the present experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant. A famous line from Virgil’s Aeneid was: “[F]orsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit” or “Perchance it will help (us) to remember these things one day.” Virgil’s words became my mantra as I toiled through the syntactical quagmire of translating this epic poem from Latin to English in 10th grade. Like Aeneas, I, too, felt tossed and buffeted by the sea of grammatical rules, conjugations, and tenses like pluperfect. This mantra also built my resilience during later experiences—both positive and negative—in college, law school, work, and marriage. It is an acknowledgement that 1) the experience is temporal, and 2) I can choose to deal with it or succumb to it. This state of mind will help me complete the Dallas Half Marathon in December with my husband. As each mile marker becomes increasingly painful, the joy and discipline of overcoming my mental and physical limits to reach the finish line will fuel my adrenaline. Thirteen—or more precisely, 13.1—will be an auspicious number that day.

A leader exemplifying gratitude and resilience through one of the most harrowing POW experiences is the late Senator John McCain. The seminal day shaping the rest of his life was October 26, 1967. “Until the day I went down, I lived under my father’s shadow,” McCain told TIME in 1978. “Incarceration relieved me of that burden—he couldn’t affect my future there.” Lieutenant Commander John McCain III, son of a U.S. admiral and commander in the Pacific, was shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese military. As a POW in Hanoi for nearly six years, McCain endured unspeakable torture, deprivation, humiliation, and years of solitary confinement. When he was offered an early release upon his captor’s discovery of his esteemed father, he declined preferential treatment and endured retaliatory torture. When he was interrogated and beaten to reveal American names, he provided the starting line-up of the Green Bay Packers. The list of McCain’s heroic acts as a POW continues through his release in March of 1973. A glimpse into his fortitude came out of a 2005 interview with Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Ms. Gross asked McCain whether the Vietnam War and the atrocities inflicted upon him diminished his ability to experience pleasure in life. McCain declared, “I enjoy every moment of my life. I enjoy every sunrise and every sunset. I enjoy and love the beauty of the state that I represent. The - my experiences have made me so appreciative of the opportunities that I've been given and the life that I've been able to lead. I enjoy every, every day . . ..”               

Fortunately, most of us will never encounter a situation as extraordinary as McCain did. However, we can choose to be intentional and grateful for each experience presented. Psychologist Robert Emmons recommends journaling reflections on moments for which we are thankful. This exercise stimulates our brains to embrace a mindset of gratitude, which will have positive effects on overall well-being and satisfaction in life. With gratitude, a natural extension of this emotion is giving and doing acts of kindness. As the ABA’s Health Law Section, we are committed to initiating community service projects such as  Breast Cancer Advocacy, Medical Legal Partnerships, Military and Veterans Health Law and Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health. These programs are supported through tax deductible gifts to our Health Law Section’s Program Support Fund. We are grateful for the opportunity to provide these programs and to encourage your support by donating today. Happy Holidays!