The power of genuine gratitude for another’s good fortune

I did it again.

It was just after our dinner plates had been cleared and, of course, right as the waitress approached our table to ask whether we were interested in dessert. As I hastily dabbed at my eyes, I managed a slight smile as my friend Margarita and I politely declined. But a few more tears still leaked through.

Though I do not make a habit of crying in restaurants, it seems I’ve been doing my fair share of exactly that in the last year. Sometimes, those tears have been bewildering, as I mentioned here almost a year ago the silent weeping that accompanied by boyfriend Zane and I to breakfast the day after one of my dearest friends got married. Those tears turned out to be my mourning the inevitable transition in our relationship as she stepped onto a path that, while never forsaking our friendship, would widely diverge from my own.

I have cried tears of gratitude, too, and of the bittersweet variety. Sometimes, they gather in small moments that carry unexpected weight. Last year, my eyes filled when, over his birthday dinner, Zane insisted on my choosing most of our menu selections. Though I tried to defer to him as the one being celebrated, he responded that he would be happy sharing whatever brought me the most joy. That single, simple declaration seemed to strike and then soothe a wound I hadn’t even realized still ached from all the times in previous relationships when my wants had been irrelevant.

It wasn’t as penetrating of an awareness that brought me to tears last week, however, as I sat across from Margarita. My bright, compassionate and talented friend, an elementary school art teacher, was going to Cambodia. No, not forever, but for two weeks this summer. Margarita has longed to work with orphans there ever since she read of the hundreds who live in places like the Phnom Penh city dump, many of them runaways from abusive homes or parents trying to sell them into sex slavery, who then struggle to earn a paltry living foraging through toxic waste for recyclables they can sell.

I remember how heartbroken she was when she told me of the plight of these children two years ago, such unimaginable suffering and squalor branding an image that would haunt her in ways she didn’t expect. She couldn’t just read about them and send money to the organizations and orphanages doing their best to rescue as many as they could.

She wanted to be with these children, to offer them what she could from the less tangible expressions missing in their lives: a blanketing kindness, gentle encouragement and a love that affirmed their self-worth. And because she is an art teacher, she wanted to share from those gifts as well.

And so at the end of July, Margarita will travel with Volunteer Project Overseas, a British agency, to the town of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. She will spend two weeks with the young students at the Wat Atvea school run by Buddhist monks and nuns and a nearby orphanage that is home to 40 kids who had been living in garbage dumps. She is hand-selecting books from Judith’s Reading Room, an organization that provides mobile libraries to under-served communities, for the kids, bringing art supplies collected by her school and plans to illustrate a children’s book with them that she also happens to be authoring.

Yes, listening to her plans, I felt the stirring of my own longing to go to Africa and work with children there. Margarita was among my earliest champions of that vision, eager to join me whenever I went and to collaborate on a project that would use her art and my writing skills to inspire hope and healing. But it was more than just the echo of my own calling that moved me to tears as she spoke with such fervor and giddiness of her plans.

I was simply happy for her. To have listened to her dream two years ago — at the time tinged with a fanciful air of impossibility — and to see it now within weeks of coming to fruition filled me with joy and pride, and a sweet sense of optimism. My reaction, I know, may seem like a normal one, and at the very least expected. Of course, I would be delighted for my friend.

But this is what I’ve learned about this celebratory kind of joy. It is sometimes natural, in the face of the grand opportunities and good news of others, to feel our own smallness.

Watching them seize a dream, we stare down our own unfulfilled longings and abandoned desires. Beckoned to the launch of a new chapter in their lives, we stand on the sidelines of our own, wondering when the spotlight will pool at our feet, when some magical twist will animate the ordinary passing of our days.

We may feel envious or even jealous, stung by the absence of luck or motivation or inspiration that propels others forward while our own plans languish in a milieu of doubt and fear. But being able to genuinely revel in the good fortune of another, to share in their joy as if it were our own, can be just the elixir we seek.

I look at it as giving ourselves permission to again pick up the dream that seems daunting, revive the hope grown frail, the vision dimmed by naysayers or a refrain of excuses. It is that expansiveness, that ability to settle into the space of their enthusiasm, that brings us that much closer to what is possible for our own lives.

Before I met Zane, I was single for three years. During that time, I watched as several girlfriends were swept off their feet into starry-eyed romances. A few even got engaged and took that wondrous walk down the aisle. And I didn’t begrudge any of them even a speck of their happiness because I knew that if they were able to find not only love but the kind that transforms and elevates, then I, too, would one day know such a bond. When Zane and I eventually met and connected, my friend Susan, single at the time, rejoiced “A victory for one is a victory for all.” She was halfjoking, but in many ways, she was right.

By being attuned to the joys of another, we can harness a powerful energy to create new possibilities for ourselves. And in celebrating Margarita’s impending triumph last week, amid tears, laughter and all, I could feel that energy rippling, carrying me forward toward the fulfillment of my own desires, and maybe — no, definitely — all the way to Africa.

– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times