Kayani sat in front of me with a paper and crayons. He was six years old and several months earlier, his parents had been butchered by militants from a tribal faction simply because of their heritage – they had the wrong parents, as had a number of his neighbors and playmates. Since that time he had been living with relatives. He lived in a very small one room house with no indoor plumbing or electricity. After my evaluation, I couldn’t find anything wrong with him. At least for now, he was fine.
I’ve traveled to over 20 countries on nearly every continent. As a counselor in those environments, I’ve seen everything from the devastating trauma of natural disaster and genocide to the life-long effects of sexual and physical abuse. Many of the children I’ve worked with had experienced far less trauma than Kayani. Yet they were incapacitated by their experiences, but for some reason he was fine.
I asked Kayani what it was like to be him. His answer might surprise you.
“I’m lucky,” he said. “Lots of kids whose parents have died don’t have any place to go, but I have my aunt and uncle. God is watching out for me.”
His answer didn’t surprise me because I’ve heard it many times. Survivors of spinal injury, violent crime, sexual assault, child abuse, and political oppression have all said something similar. These victims who successfully cope with their traumas are the ones who, despite unbelievable tragedy, saw the positive in their situations. They were grateful.
On the other hand, people in the United States, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, has the highest level of depression. We are relatively free from the daily oppression of disease, political turmoil, and starvation. We have the luxury of worrying about how we will spend our free time and expendable income. Yet our luxurious lifestyle brings with it the paradox that we also have the burden to maintain it, protect it, and worry about it.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas season is upon us. If you are wondering what gift you might give your children that will help them through life, teaching them gratefulness could literally save their lives.
Teach them to be grateful that they live in a country where they are free to say or do almost anything they want; that they are wealthy enough to never truly know hunger, the threat of diseases that plague the majority of the world’s children, or genocide.
Help them recognize that the things that they want – new video games, computers, or clothes – will never bring them happiness. Happiness will only come from the recognition of what they have rather than the ruing of what they do not have. If they learn to be happy with what they have, they will always be happy.
Teach them to focus on developing healthy family bonds and strong friendships. People like Kayani understand something very simple that research has confirmed for decades. Life satisfaction is found in relationships. Building these relationships comes from an investment of energy and time.
Facebook won’t do it, simply living in the same house won’t do it, and neither will sharing the same last name. These things give the illusion of relationships.
Deep and committed relationships are built through hours of intimate commitment to another person and the reciprocation of that energy.
Kayani’s new family has almost nothing. They don’t watch TV, he has never seen a video game or a movie, and he has never been more than 20 miles from his home on the African continent. But Kayani’s family is healthier and stronger than most of the families that I know. They take long walks together, do housework together, and sit around a small fire almost every night and talk about their day.
I don’t wish trauma on anyone, but in a way I envy what he has. I wish I could bottle it and give it to others so they, too, could enjoy what he has found at such a young age. If you don’t have a grateful heart, when you sit around your Thanksgiving table this season, maybe you can start to find what Kayani has with your loved ones, too.