How To Be Thankful When Life Is Tough

Have you experienced times when being thankful was really hard? I have. I’ve gone through difficult times when it’s hard to think about anybody but myself. One thing that helps me, though, is recognizing that I’m not alone and that others have gone through similar difficulties. In fact, many have gone through far worse than I. And that brings me to my mom.

She has taught English as a second langugage (ESL) for nearly 20 years. Most of that time was spent teaching in high school. During that time she has taught political refugees from all over the world, undocumented immigrants and even American kids. Some of the life stories her students have shared with her are truly extraordinary.

I’m going to share some of them with you today. They are all true, and some very sad. But please read them all as they really put thankfulness into perspective. I should warn you that some of these stories are very painful to read. But so that we end on a positive note, I’ve saved a really inspirational story for last.

  • One boy from Cambodia had come to the United States as a political refugee. He doesn’t know where either of his parents are because his father sold him to the Khmer Rouge in exchange for a boom box.
  • One mom with five children came to the United States from Somalia. The father is missing in Somalia, and they don’t know if he is dead or alive.
  • One boy from Somalia told my mom about a day in Mogadishu when his best friend stole a watermellon. A local warlord caught them. He put a Kalashnikov rifle under the boy’s chin who had taken the watermellon and killed him there in the public market.
  • A family of four from Cambodia fled the communist government. The mother was pregnant. The son recalled drinking cow urine to survive as they made their way across the country toward Thailand. When they reached the border, border patrols raped the mom and daughter. The mom lost her pregnancy.
  • One family from China spent six years to obtain the documents necessary to immigrate legally to the U.S. The Chinese boy was shocked to learn from my mom what happened at Tiananmen Square. News and information are highly regulated in China, and he was unaware of this historical event.

Before I get to the final, inspirational story, I should say my mom got to know these children very well. These kids did not act like victims, but survivors. Many of them overcame substantial hurdles to get a high school degree, and some even went on to college. It’s truly amazing how each of these children found a way to survive. It makes challenges like overdrawing my checking account or paying an unexpected car repair bill seem just plain silly.

  • My mom taught a young American girl for several years. The girl’s father had left and the mother was a drug addict. They lived in an appartment with no utilities. The girl studied at night by flashlight. One day the police raided the apartment and took the drugs (no arrests were made or reports filed). While in high school, the girl moved in with a 20-something year old man. The living arrangements were better and he gave her lunch money in exchange for her innocence.

    One day in class, the girl raised her hand and told my mom and the class that she was going to make something of herself. My mom asked how she was going to do this, and the girl said she was going to law school. Sure enough, she went to college, law school, and now is a practicing attorney.

For me, these stories put thankfulness in a whole new light. I hope you find something to be thankful for this holiday week. If so, please leave a comment telling us what you have to be thankful for.

Published or Updated: May 10, 2014
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.


  1. Those are truly inspirational stories. Thank you so much for sharing. As someone whose family is going through a tough time right now, you’re right on the money. The best way to be thankful is to look outside yourself.

  2. Shafi says:

    Inspirational stories indeed! And if one doesn’t see the perils and adversity in third world countries, one has everything to be thankful for. The sad thing is only a few people realise it – and you are one of them!

    Thank you for sharing…

  3. Peter says:

    Stories like these really do put things in perspective. We really have it so good, and have so much to be thankful for.

  4. Caitlin says:


    Old post is old, but I just found it through a Tweet from @jdroth. It’s still as frightening and inspirational as the day it was written.

  5. Jason says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing and putting things into perspective.

  6. No Debt Plan says:

    Wow. Splash of water on the face this morning. Good stuff.

    Every once in a while we need a reminder that the garbage disposal dying, or something not going our way, really isn’t that big of a deal in the long run.

  7. Dolori addominali in gravidanza says:

    Be thankful when you’re tired and weary, because it means you’ve made a difference. It’s easy to be thankful for the good things.

    Dolori addominali in gravidanza

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