Derek McGinnis had his left leg blown off in Iraq in 2004 when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) tore a hole in the Humvee in which he was riding. He also lost an eye and a leg in the attack, and sustained brain trauma.
He woke up, not knowing what took place, only that he was racked with pain and missing body parts. As the gravity of his physical situation settled in, Derek grew despondent. He was no longer the physical specimen he was before arriving in Fallujah. He was thrust into a deep depression, and once suggested that his wife leave him as he was "no good" for her anymore. With the prospects of many years of recovery and rehabilitation ahead - hard work - Derek was certain that life was over.
But he's a restored human being. I know because I've met the Stanislaus County man.
Why the turn around? Well, when Derek learned that his wife was pregnant, he resolved that he would have something for which to live. It wasn't easy - and still isn't - but today Derek McGinnis can run, surf and swim with the help of a prosthetic leg. He has a renewed faith in the God who saved him.
His life is characterized by "thanks-living," or the daily practice of counting blessings, not recounting the curses.
McGinnis relates a poignant moment of his life in his book, "Exit Wounds." Upon his release from an East Coast military hospital, one of the first things Derek wanted to do was visit a Starbucks as a civilian. As he ordered his drink - thankful that he was alive and home in the greatest nation on earth - he listened to a customer's pathetic whine about the cream that was floating atop her drink. She went on and on, unaware that the veteran listening to her had been to hell and back. Derek believes that many Americans are like her - spoiled by pleasures with no real gratitude or thankfulness as to what we have been blessed.
I'm afraid I agree. I'm also afraid that I can be like that, too. It takes practice, but I'm trying to be among those who have an attitude of gratitude because I am sure that's the key to being happy.
Thanksgiving is tomorrow and many are in circumstances that are far from ideal. A vast population of our elderly are lonely, forgotten and without family. Millions are without jobs and some are barely making ends meet. Millions suffer from physical ailments and disease. Many Americans are still pessimistic about their futures and household incomes seem to have been flat-lined for years now. It's easy to look to the future with a gloomy forecast.
If we view our circumstances differently, it will change our outlook. At one time Derek McGinnis was asking God why him. Of all the people on the battlefield, why did the bomb hit his truck and tear into his flesh? But the Derek McGinnis I saw years ago had a change perspective. He now asks God, "Why have you chosen to bless me in this way?" Today he is helping other servicemen and their families to deal with injury and death. And he feels privileged to do so.
Yes, he's missing a leg. But he's happy that he can bound around on an artificial leg. At least he can get on a surfboard and feel the sting of the ocean spray in his face. One eye doesn't work. At least he still has vision to see the faces of his wife and children.
One sentence that he uttered has stuck with me: "I am so blessed to be vertical." We should all be so ready and able to echo his sentiments of thankfulness. We are, after all, living!
It takes work to be so genuinely grateful, especially when what we've possessed has been stripped from us.
While it may seem corny to be grateful for everyday life, there is a fair amount of study to suggest that being grateful has a number of benefits. A three-year study by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley learned that people who are generally thankful enjoy less stress and better moods, less pain and more gain, better sleep, stronger relationships and resilience.
And lest you think that thanksgiving necessarily has a religious connotation, remember that a broader sense of gratitude - religious or not - comes from learning to take nothing for granted. University of California-Davis psychologist Robert Emmons said that Thanksgiving was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrim flock died from a rough winter and year. Abraham Lincoln made it a national holiday in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.
And, as McGinnis could testify, a 2006 study found that even among war veterans with post-traumatic stress syndrome that dispositional gratitude predicted things like daily self-esteem, "daily intrinsically motivating activity" and percentage of pleasant days "over and above" the severity of PTSD.
After a late Monday night of work at the Courier and an early rise for a day of production, I groaned privately that it seemed like I was working too much for the pay. I was reminded that at least I have a job.
Each Christmas I'm comforted by a Bing Crosby song in "White Christmas." He croons out the words to "Counting My Blessings," among them being, "When I'm worried and I can't sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep and I fall asleep counting my blessings. When my bankroll is getting small, I think of when I had none at all ... and I fall asleep counting my blessings."
This weekend I was reading "Killing Lincoln," a book about the end of the Civil War and the assassination of our 16th president. I was struck by the brutality of the war - indeed the final days were especially bad - and all I could think was thank God I hadn't been a young man back in 1865. Mind you, I was reading this aboard a flight from Oakland to Denver and back. Who cannot be thankful that a journey that far, which took grueling and dangerous months back in 1850, just took a comfortable few hours. Yet, I heard grumblings about this and that aboard the aircraft.
Being the spoiled Starbucks complainer is a very becoming state of being. May we all make it our goal to thank God for what we have and live in a perpetual state of "thanks-living."
Do you have any feedback about this column? Let Jeff know by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will read it, promise.