Monday, October 5, 2015

Radical Gratitude

As a child, Andrew Bienkowski was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. The struggle to survive was so extreme that Andrew's grandfather stopped eating so his grandchildren wouldn't starve. How is it that someone could undergo such a horrific experience and not become angry or bitter but instead espouse a loving, giving, positive attitude?

This was the first question I asked Mary Akers in the current installment of my Books That Inspire series. Akers co-authored Bienkowski's book, One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others.

This book is essentially a memoir of Andrew Bienkowski who, as a five-year-old, was exiled from Poland to Siberia with his family. Why is it, do you think, that Andrew didn't sour toward life?

I think a lot of it had to do with his family. Andy would tell you that, too. They worked hard to find the good in the direst of circumstances, kept a strong faith, loved one another, and never gave up. Sounds like a pretty great combination to me. I think one of the other big factors is that they talked about what they were going through—before, during, and after—and didn’t keep things bottled up from shame or anger.

His grandmother was the storyteller and she not only kept alive the memories of his grandfather and their old life in Poland, but she helped them interpret the stories of Siberia as they lived them. A person can take any incident and focus on particular details that will support it as being tragic or hopeful. The family stories he was told always tended toward hopeful.

After writing this book, Andy came up with an interesting theory that I like a lot. He sums it up in one sentence: What you choose to remember, and how you choose to interpret what you remember, determines who you are.

You co-wrote the book with Andrew. What was that experience like?

It was great. He is every bit as warm and encouraging and thoughtful in person as he comes across in the book. In the beginning, I was actually quite nervous about depicting his life story and then handing it to him and essentially saying, “So, what do you think?” Can you imagine doing that for someone you’ve only just met? I had a lot of trepidation, but he was always really positive about the results.

The one time when I didn’t get his mother’s voice right in a chapter, he came to my house and brought me a bunch of old pictures and some old letters and newspaper clippings and we just sat and talked about her. She was the one I’d had the most trouble “connecting” with initially, but after I thought about the fact that she was a mother of two young children, watching her father starve to death so her children could live, her dilemma and motivation hit me hard. I can only imagine how difficult that must have been.

I say the book is "essentially" a memoir, but it's eclectic and not easy to categorize. It also has components of an inspirational self-help book--and I see on the back, the publisher deems it "personal growth" and "psychology." You call it your "changeling child." Why did you and Andrew decide to approach the book in this way--and what were the benefits and challenges?

Well, we both always knew we wanted the book to be accessible and readable as a story, but also contain good, solid advice, in the same way that a parable teaches a lesson in the guise of a story. It’s also similar to how Andy worked with patients during his years as a practicing psychotherapist. Never underestimate the power of a good story to hold important details in the mind. Just ask any teacher, politician, or preacher.

Also, I would say that Andy and I are very similar in one way: We have wide-ranging interests, and friends all over the spectrum (race, gender, socioeconomics, etc.), so as people we don’t really fit into any definable category. We’ve both been a lot of different things in our lives, lived a lot of different places, and that all combines to make life and storytelling so much more interesting.

So, yes, this book has many aspects—it’s inspirational, it’s a memoir, it’s a little known part of World War Two history, it’s got a self-help angle, and it’s about human psychology. That’s what makes it interesting to read, but also what has been a real bear for us in getting it out into the world. Editors and publishers and librarians? They really like to know where a book “fits.” They need to know how to shelve it, market it, and sell it. And it’s difficult to do that when the book has so many different aspects. What is it? What do we call it? Where do we stock it? These are all important questions that affect which consumers ever even see the book. That has hurt us in some ways, because it is so much more than a psychology book or a self-help book.

Mary and Andy

Were you changed as a result of working on this project? If so, in what ways?

Yes. For starters, I didn’t know anything about the Polish Holocaust—it was never taught to me in school. I had no clue that more than a million Poles had been deported to Siberia left to starve, freeze to death, or die of illness. So there’s that—a whole perspective shift, there. But really, what affected us both, at about the same time post-publication, was the idea that we had written a book telling people how important it is to be grateful for bad things, to be mindful, to be good listeners, to be kind—and that simple fact shone a light on both our lives. Were we living what we had written? Were we qualified to give advice to others when we both still had work to do to become our best selves? It was very humbling.

I love the idea of "radical gratitude." Andrew believes it has the power to help "dissatisfied and restless people" learn to live better lives. What, to you, is radical gratitude--and do you practice it?

Radical Gratitude at its core is about being grateful for bad things that happen to you because those experiences make you stronger, more resilient, wiser, and more empathetic to the struggles of others. I absolutely do practice it. I live by it. I didn’t have the words for it before meeting Andy, but it’s always been at the core of who I am—looking for that silver lining, taking the lesson and absorbing it, recalibrating, making improvements and moving forward. I refuse to believe that there can’t be something good to come out of every heartbreak, loss, or physical suffering. I don’t think I could go on without that belief to sustain me through difficult times. So that aspect of Andy’s book spoke to me from day one. We were both very much simpatico in that regard.

Andrew says that worrying intensifies tension, anxiety, stress, and negativity. He recommends that instead of worrying, we "visualize good things happening in the future." Do you do this? Do you have tips for anyone who might like to orient themselves toward a positive vision of the future?

Well, I try very hard to do this. This one doesn’t come as naturally to me. I fret. I agonize. I wallow. Even as I know it is a ridiculous waste of time and mental energy. The best thing I can say is that I am trying. Living in the moment helps. Unless you’re bleeding, vomiting, or on fire, there really isn’t much to worry about in the present moment. And similar to that idea of slanting the story one way or another, if we’re going to expend the energy thinking about the future or the past, why not expend it envisioning or remembering a positive outcome? I have a long way to go, but I will say this: I get a little bit better at it every day.

In regards to the subtitle of this book, what do you think are the one or two key ways we can find ourselves by helping others?

I would say by listening and being kind. Both of those actions help us to be our best selves while also helping others in the process.

Mary Akers is also the author of two books of short fiction. Raised in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, she currently lives in western New York.  Andrew Bienkowski is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force who served in the Korean War. He has worked as a psychologist for 40 years. He lives near Buffalo, New York. Mary and Andrew are working on a new book about aging and wisdom and not taking oneself too seriously.

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