It was the early autumn of 1989. I was living at the time in St. Croix Falls, newly transplanted from Massachusetts. It had been a traumatic summer for me, with the move, my unexpected expulsion from the counselor training program at Hazelden, and then the suicide of my younger sister.
I spent much of my time processing my grief by way of bicycling and hiking in Interstate Park, near my home. I wondered what was to come of my life. I had recently taken training in Constructive Living Therapy at Omega Institute in New York. Perhaps this shed light on my path of service?
A training tool in this pathway was a discipline called "Secret Service." In this practice, you were to pick a person or a place and then do some act of kindness each day for a month. You had to do this service anonymously, not speaking of it to anyone. This would defeat the purpose.
I picked my daily retreat, Interstate Park, as my place of secret service. I had noticed on my hiking route many places where the local kids had thrown beer cans and bottles. Seeing this had brought up feelings of sadness at times, anger at others. Now I could actually do something about this "injustice."
My plan was to fill one large garbage bag for each of the days of my month of service. This would be easy, I presumed, having seen large stashes of debris under rocks, etc. In the early days of the month it was easy, and I felt rather good about myself for cleaning up the park.
But as the month went on, it became increasing difficult to fulfill my daily mission. I really had to search to find the next stash. I started trying to tune into the mindset of those I had judged as "unconscious" – those who had desecrated this beautiful place. I began to feel happiness when I found my next pile of broken bottles and cans. I was starting to feel grateful for those who would so carelessly litter. A curse was being transformed into a blessing.
It was amazing to me, this shift in my mind. By being so focused on my daily service, I was finding an appreciation for those very same beings I had judged rather harshly. I was experiencing joy when finding a hidden pile of garbage. My whole mind was being changed by this experience.
By the end of my month I was astounded by what had happened inside of me. I had experientially witnessed a core teaching from my beloved discipline, A Course in Miracles (ACIM). This teaching states: "Seek not to change the world; rather seek to change your mind about the world."
This is a lesson in shifting our perspective so that we see any problem as really being an opportunity. The problem of trash in the park became my opportunity to clean it up. But the real opportunity was to feel gratitude instead of upset, to love my world instead of hate it.
Here is the focus of the real teaching, the transformation of judgment into love. One of the greatest lines from ACIM goes like this: "The holiest of all places on earth is where an ancient hatred becomes a present love."
These were my baby steps into a whole new way of seeing service. More importantly, these were my first steps toward learning the essence of gratitude. If I choose to do so, I can see opportunity everywhere, right in front of me, every day. There is always some need, some call for love, that I might choose to serve. And when I open myself to serve, who really wins? I do.
For there is nothing more fulfilling than to extend myself in some small way every day. This is the Divine moving through me, and this experience brings with it peace and joy. When Jesus taught about loving our enemies, he wasn’t meaning that we should be so good as to overlook their actions and forgive them.
What he meant, and still means, is that we are to open our minds to the reality that every problem is an opportunity. Every moment offers us a time and a place to genuinely give of ourselves. And when we do truly give, experiencing the Divine energy of love moving through us, we can only know gratitude.
True service always yields gratitude. Any perceived problem in the world is transformed into a joyous opportunity to give, as we allow Spirit to change our mind. Love has this power. It transformed my mind during a time in my life when the appearance of loss might have yielded bitterness and self-pity.
Gratitude is the key that opens the door to a profoundly meaningful and satisfying life. Real forgiveness sets us free to live powerful lives, as we have aligned ourselves with reality or the Divine. We come to see our world as a dance of endless opportunity to give, and by giving we receive.
As the Course teaches: "To have all, give all to all."