Why the Presence of Absence Doesn’t Have to Make You Sad
How Saudade can be uplifting
Stoic philosopher, Seneca wrote that,
‘a wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.’
If you want a Range Rover but drive a Fiat Panda, if you live in the less salubrious side of town or hanker after a son following the births of three girls; pause and take a step back and stop…
Be grateful that you have your own mode of transport, a home and healthy children.
These are all the dreams of others.
Slow down, take stock and be grateful for what you have right at this moment.
Don’t complain about your lot — unless you are fleeing for your life, dodging chlorine bombs thrown out of helicopters in war-torn Syria or hopelessly tending to your cholera-stricken child in Yemen in the midst of a brutal political conflict, you have a lot to be grateful for.
As American motivational speaker and author, Zig Ziglar said,
‘Be grateful for what you have and stop complaining — it bores everybody else, does you no good, and doesn’t solve any problems.’
Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero once characterised gratitude as ‘the mother of all the virtues.’
Gratitude is a virtue that you should bestow readily and frequently on others and yourself because a life without gratitude is a life unappreciated.
I recently found some old photographs of my grandparents whom I miss very much. There is a word in Portuguese that is difficult to translate directly into English: Saudade.
Roughly translated it means the presence of absence.
We can experience saudade for places, smells and sounds among other things.
I experience saudade for my grandparents. I lost my paternal Grampa when I was 18. He was the most loving, patient and kind man. He taught me so much and drew out my creative spirit.
I miss him every day, but I am grateful that I had such a wonderful influence and benchmark of a good person in my life.
Similarly, my Nana played a significant role in shaping the woman I have become. She took care to present always the very best version of herself to the world. She used to buy my sister and I coordinating outfits that arrived in cellophane wrappings, such was their ‘specialness’.
I have never lost that emotion of confidence associated with looking presentable that she created in me. She used to call me the ‘apple of her eye’ and I loved hearing that.
Not long after my Grampa had passed away, she gave up; dying I believe, of a broken heart.
My maternal grandparents were incredibly hard-working souls. Marcus Aurelius would have loved my Granny as she was the embodiment of Stoicism.
Quite matter of fact, she never dwelled on or spoke about challenges and hardships. Her hands were often raw with the effects of chemical cleaning fluids and general hard graft.
She would scrub the floors of our parish church before collecting us from school so my incredibly hard-working mother could work a full-time job. Quite often she took us back to the parochial house after school to have a cup of tea with her friend, Vera who looked after the priests. I loved going there as I was allowed two biscuits and a cup of orange squash and sometimes the priests would come and sit around the table with my cousins and I, each resplendent in our straw boater hats and peter pan collared pinafore dresses.
To convent schoolgirls, these priests were like superstars because ordinary lay people only really got to see them on the stage of the altar.
This childhood experience is probably why I have such a fondness for the Channel 4 TV series, Father Ted. My Granny walked everywhere and carried her shopping for miles in string bags wearing red open-toe flat mules; the only pair of shoes I ever saw her wear.
I cannot remember her complaining about anything. She was so unshakeable that she was terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure.
When I was 10, she died of stomach cancer.
I recall her seven children, my Grandad and her four granddaughters standing around her bedside.
She called me over to her bed and asked for a cuddle. I didn’t know it then, but I realise now that she was saying goodbye.
Everyone was sobbing.
I didn’t cry because I didn’t really grasp what was going on.
I remember that the aroma in the room was a heady mix of medicine and imminent death.
I would recognise it instantly when I will inevitably encounter it again.
Sometimes when I am unsure of my next move or how to react to a situation, I try to consider what she would do.
Inevitably the answer would be to be helpful to others, to get over it and on with it.
Her husband, my Grandad, was an affable character always being reprimanded by my Granny. My cousins and I all found this hilarious.
My Grandad did too, much to my Granny’s chagrin. He was a roofer until he was well-passed pensionable age.
He was also one of the only survivors of a torpedo attack on HMS Jasper which was sunk by a torpedo fired from a German E Boat in 1942. He never once spoke about his experiences in the war and my family only knows more details about the event through researching it after his death.
I remember one day after my Granny’s passing, he decided to build a conservatory. He just upped tools and knocked out the back of his house, probably with a hammer and his hands, which to be fair, were like shovels.
On the day it happened, we came to visit him and I can still hear my mother’s screams at the sight of a house with no rear end and no provision to cover it up or secure it as night was falling.
My sister and I were in kinks, laughing. My Grandad just shrugged his shoulders, winked at us and said ‘Oops!’ This memory still makes me smile over thirty years on.
He passed away when I was 24.
He developed Alzheimer’s which I have learned is one of the most cruel diseases to befall a person and their loved ones. Like my paternal Grampa, my Grandad taught me about the type of person that I wanted to be and be around.
I am eternally grateful to have known them and to have had them in my life to guide and influence me.
As I am writing these words, it has dawned on me that the man I chose to marry embodies all of the virtues and values that my grandparents espoused.
Their influence long surpassed their time in my life, and I hope that if I can be for my daughters and possible future grandchildren even a modicum of what they were to me, I will be content.
Maturity and having my own family have allowed me to appreciate my grandparents more now than I did when they were in my life as a child and young woman.
Their presence in my life taught me, without them literally teaching me, how to be grateful. I don’t think gratitude can be taught directly; it can only be modelled, practised and then felt by both the giver and recipient.
Gratitude doesn’t have to involve words, a card or a hug; even a gracious smile can go a long way.
I am no longer sad when I think of the presence of absence of my grandparents as they will be in my heart and unconscious mind forever.
Look around at the people closest to you in your life for a moment and consider how their presence can conjure up feelings of gratitude.
Look back at old photos and remember the memories.
Tell them how much you value them, even if they are no longer in your life. Tell them that you are glad that they are or were in your life.
Share these happy feelings with others.
American writer, William Faulkner wrote that
‘Gratitude is a quality similar to electricity: it must be produced and discharged and used up in order to exist at all.’
In this sense, you need to let your heart and mind fill with gratitude and then let it go by bestowing it on others.
I remember the time my husband left a little note for me to find on my windscreen when we had just started going out. It read, ‘To my girlfriend, I love you’. 16 years on, I still use this note as a bookmark.
I didn’t put it away in a memory box as I want to see it and experience the feeling each time I open a book (naturally, as a teacher, I laminated it). It never fails to make me smile and appreciate what a good man I have in my life.
He has committed himself to a life loving me irrespective of the challenges that we have and will face.
What more can you ask of another human being?
The burst of happiness that all parties feel as a result of an exchange of gratitude will encourage more of the same behaviours towards others.
Gratitude is a simple emotion to spread — a kind word or a smile goes a long way.