Learning To Live With Gratitude

I’ve only been at the homeless shelter for 30 minutes when Sucre comes laughing and dancing down the halls. She wiggles her hips from side to side, throwing her arms in the air before settling into the chair next to me. The biggest smile is plastered on my face as I ask,“What has you so fiery?”

Her words waltz around the room as tells me that the shelter decided to move her to a bigger room, one where she doesn’t have to worry about roommates that relieve themselves in the showers and spit threats at her across the hallways. She leads me down the fluorescently lit hall, peeling open the metal door to her new room, letting me peek inside.

The white paint peels off the cramped walls of a room that’s barely the size of a Boston College dorm—hardly enough space for a mom and two daughters. But in this moment, it doesn’t matter to Sucre, who bounces back down the hall, radiating energy.

When I first started volunteering at Margaret’s House, a homeless shelter for women in Dorchester, I would often leave at night feeling a weird mixture of sadness and pity for the women that stayed after the elevator doors slid shut behind me. Now, after spending a year at the shelter, I am constantly in awe of the women’s strength and gratitude for small joys in the face of unimaginable adversity. Despite the fact that they struggle daily to find permanent housing, stable employment, and enough food to last the week, the women maintain a positivity that people with privilege struggle to find.

As I ride in the van back to BC, I am amazed at how quickly my thoughts begin to rage, clouded by negativity. I’m often frustrated by the amount of school work I have to finish, pissed at the rain falling outside, and upset over some grade that, in the long run, doesn’t really matter. I neglect gratitude.

At BC, it’s all too easy for students’ worldviews to shrink to the size of the campus. We become caught up in the bubble of our own social problems, challenging classes, and evolving friendships. And while many of these issues and feelings are justified, we forget how lucky we are to take such amazing classes, create formative friendships, and empower our futures. As students, it is easy to become distanced from the problems of the real world and forget to put life into perspective.

Recently, I was helping out in the shelter store when Darah, a mom with two older kids, walked in, asking if we had any sheets for a twin sized bed. I could see the excitement blooming across her face as she told me she just received her Section 8 voucher and would be moving into a new apartment that week. Her kids had never lived outside of a homeless shelter before.

I quickly rummaged through the bins, apologizing when I realized that all of the brightly patterned pairs were already gone—the store only had plain brown sheets left for sale. Darah only smiled, adding them to her bag and assuring me, “No worries honey, anything the shelter can give us is a gift from God.”

Though they have every right to be bitter, these mothers, who have surmounted immense obstacles to escape homelessness, still find space to be grateful in their daily lives. Their power radiates through their insurmountable positivity and drive. Every day they wake up, mustering the strength to face constant frustration, anxiety, PTSD, relationship violence, and vulnerability. When they return to the shelter, they relay stories of anger and hurt, yes, but they also pay attention to the good.

As finals approach at BC, and I leave my PULSE site, I worry that I, too, will lose touch with this kind of reality. The stress and anxiety becomes overwhelming. I often sit in the library listening to the pained chatter of students anticipating group projects, endless papers, and anticipating the stress of final tests. They stare at blank laptop screens and groan, “UGH, I’m gonna KMS.” I am just as guilty of this pessimism. All of us could learn a lesson or two about being thankful from the women at my PULSE site.

It is important to keep in mind that, while tests and grades are stressful and important, they do not define our lives. Whether we get the ideal grades we desire or not, BC students will move on to attain successful careers, form healthy families, and be positive leaders in a world fraught with suffering and pain.

Though study days and inevitable stress loom large, we have a responsibility to remember gratitude and pay attention to the friends, families, and bright futures we are lucky to have. It is important that we see the people we aspire to be—those considerate to creating a world full of compassion—and embody those future selves even in times of stress.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor