(Or How I Came to Embrace a New Age Concept Without Believing)
It has often annoyed me when we are told that all experiences, especially bad ones, are an opportunity to learn, that we all have times when life seems to go smoothly, and more challenging times where nothing goes right. And we’re supposed to be thankful for the latter? I wasn’t convinced, not at all.
This year started off not too well for me. I had a serious health scare that knocked my confidence and sapped my energy for a few months. During that time I also had a quite a trying problem with my local bank. It’s a very long complicated story involving a small local French bank’s lack of experience in paying in any cheque that isn’t French.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had problems, I always go in with trepidation with any non-French cheque and the staff appear worried and try to avoid dealing with me. I look over their shoulder as they enter the details in a dusty corner of their computer system where human life is seldom seen.
On this particular day, my cheque was a nice big one (for me anyway) as it was for work I had done for a company during six months of the previous year. I needed the money on the account in January to pay some bills that had amassed over Christmas and New Year.
I won’t bore you with every detail but suffice to say that the bank made a lot of errors, starting on that day and stretching over a period of several weeks, an utter cluster f***, including paying the cheque in twice into two different accounts, cancelling it from the wrong account, then cancelling it from the other one (due to misreading the date and incorrectly claiming the cheque was invalid), and then charging me extortionate fees each time the money was credited or debited from these two accounts.
In consequence of the cheque going in and out of my account on different dates, I lost money on the ever-changing exchange rate. By the middle of February I had lost hundreds of Euros and, although the cheque was finally showing on an account (the wrong one, as it happened, but I would have to live with it and transfer it), I was not confident that it would stay there. I had actually paid it in to the other account, all the paperwork showed that, and I know that international cheques can bounce up to six months after being paid in. The errors had put my accounts into the red and I was going to be charged bank fees for this as well.
To compound these problems, the advisor who deals with my account, a guy everyone at the bank calls ‘Charlie’, was on holiday for four weeks and no one else seemed able to help me other than by looking very stressed and logging what had happened in a small notebook. They assured me that they were almost completely confident that the cheque amount would now remain on the account and that the elusive Charlie would be informed of everything that had transpired. All I had to do now was, on his return, contact him each time I noticed a bank charge that I felt was unwarranted and he would deal with it.
I was beside myself. I had had weeks of stress, weeks of taking time out of my day to go in to the bank and explain the latest mistake that I had noticed. No one apologised. No one was willing to just take responsibility and sort this out for me. It was up to me to watch my account regularly and go begging (or at least that’s how it felt) each time I noticed something wrong.
France is a very different country from many Anglophone countries. The concept of banging on the desk, demanding compensation or threatening legal action is barely known here. I spoke with a few French friends and received a sympathetic smile, the Gallic shrug and a heartfelt c’est la vie. They’d all dealt with mistakes by their banks and had all learned to accept that it really was part of life.
And so I was left feeling angry and stressed. I felt a loss of confidence and security.
I also felt a big ‘poor me’ moment coming on.
It was around this time that I read an article on the “attitude of gratitude”, something I would previously have dismissed as wishy-washy New Age rubbish in which only a fool would believe.
The concept is quite straight forward, simply making a habit of feeling and expressing gratitude for everything in your life. This can be done in a general way or can become very specific depending on how you employ it. It is claimed by psychologists to increase your happiness by cultivating a positive outlook and reminding you of the good things in your life that you may very well overlook.
Somehow this idea took seed in me at exactly the time when I was feeling stressed about the whole bank fiasco and, in a moment of weakness, I felt like giving it a go. What did I have to lose really, except a few minutes of my not-so-precious time?
I also realised that the only real power I had was to change my perspective and hope to transform my reaction, and this seemed as good a way to start as any.
So I stepped back and took stock of my precise situation with the ‘attitude of gratitude’ in mind. I actually realised pretty quickly that my problems were ‘First World problems’ and I had very little to be complain about.
And I made a preliminary list of everything for which I should be grateful:
I was alive and so were my loved ones.
I was in good health and so were my loved ones.
I was in a good relationship with a good man.
I had my family, my home, my pets and some good friends.
I was lucky enough to have a little money in a savings account to tide me over.
I could always earn more money.
Okay, so it wasn’t the longest list, there was obviously much more I could add to it given some more thought, but it also brought me to thinking long and hard about where my thought process had led me astray:
I had expected the bank to not make mistakes.
I had expected to be financially secure for the first few months of the year, having worked hard for my cheque in the previous months.
I had expected my ‘luck’ to be better after a bit of ‘bad luck’ earlier in the year. I felt I was owed something.
I had expected the bank to solve the problems without any effort on my part.
I had expected an apology or some offer of compensation.
And I saw straight away that I was left disappointed and frustrated due to my own expectations. I realised that I don’t have to be cynical or negative, I can be positive and thankful, but I can also change my expectations to mitigate the feelings of being let down.
I also had to accept that there are things I can control and there are things I cannot. We do have to trust others to do the things we can’t do ourselves, professionals such as doctors, bankers, mechanics, accountants and lawyers, depending on our own skills and qualifications. We can choose carefully, we can oversee as much as we can (hopefully without being an anally retentive pain in the a**), but in the end we’re in their hands and we have to accept that mistakes are sometimes made.
I’m not a saint or a robot. I do still feel some anger and frustration when I think about this incident but I try to adopt this simplistically named ‘attitude of gratitude’ as often as I can, reminding myself that I am, in fact, very lucky.
I was lucky to have had that money in the first place – I worked hard and I earned it, but many people work hard and still don’t earn what they deserve. The problem was resolved in the end, the cheque didn’t bounce and the bank did eventually refund most, if not all, that I had lost in fees and exchange rates.
I never heard anything from Charlie on his return from holiday but then I didn’t expect to. I’m sure he had more pressing things to deal with than a disillusioned English woman who asks the bank to do something that they have been barely trained to do.
I would, of course, rather that it had never happened but, whilst I hate to admit it, I really do think that I learned quite a lot from the entire affair, about attitude and expectation.
Will I feel, think and act the same next time, with an initial outpouring of anger and frustration? Probably. But maybe I’ll make the journey to acceptance and gratitude a little more quickly and a little more graciously than this time.
For now, I have the smugness of feeling just a little wiser. And for that I’m truly grateful.