What would you do if you were told you had only a few weeks to live? When Joan Zawoiski Lewis found out she was dying from pancreatic cancer, the grandmother from Pringle, Pa., told family and friends: Don’t make a fuss. Just do something nice for somebody else. Then tell me about it.
People from all 50 states and every continent eventually would heed “Joannie from Pringle,” as her request spread and made the news. Word of good deeds came daily, and Lewis enjoyed reading the accounts again and again.
“An acquaintance of mine didn’t have enough to eat the past few weeks, so I stopped off with a few bags of groceries,” wrote Julia Kristan on CaringBridge.org, where Lewis’s page has drawn about 30,000 page views. “Thank you for living such an inspiring life. You’ve turned sadness into joy and hopelessness into a rippling pool of raised spirits and good deeds. If even a quarter of the world decided to live more like you, what a world it would be.”
“I cleaned up trails at Addison State Park in central Vermont just for her,” Drew Johnson wrote.
“I gave my co-worker a hug in your honor this morning,” another person said.
“First day of school is always a challenge for teachers. We made a batch of lemon bars and sent them to the faculty with our seventh-grader today to make their day a little sweeter,” KW wrote.
“Gave an elderly woman on the streets in Dublin some money because Joannie from Pringle would do it,” wrote another.
Meanwhile, Lewis’s days turned into weeks. After being told in September 2009 that her Stage 4 pancreatic cancer had metastasized to the liver, limiting her lifespan to just weeks or even mere days, Lewis felt well enough to cross off bucket-list items the next month. She floated in a hot air balloon over farms and old barns in Charlottesville, Va., where she lived with daughter Jocelyn. The next week, she stayed in the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan and sat in a second-row seat for a taping of ABC’s The View.
Months turned into a year. Her attitude, natural fortitude and the outpouring of positive response from others enabled her to hang on long enough to undergo—and then tolerate—chemotherapy, says daughter Jacqueline Lewis.
“Not only is Miss Joannie still alive one year after her grim prognosis (because of YOU!! And all the good deeds you’ve shared),” states an update on the Joannie from Pringle Facebook page from Oct. 15, 2010, “but last week she was even able to drive again. So keep those cards and letters coming.”
All of which inspired Jacqueline Lewis to start the World Gratitude Map, a crowdsourcing website launched in October 2010 that invites everyone around the world to tell briefly why they’re grateful. She thought: If her mom has been able to live so long against the odds by focusing on good deeds, why not start this map so that we all can focus on the positive and feel good? Public health practitioners use maps to track bad things such as gun violence and flu outbreaks. What if, she thought, we used maps to track good? “Gratitude is contagious,” states the map’s motto. “Blissful? Thankful? Put a red dot on the map to mark the spot where you felt that burst of gratitude or to thank someone special.”
“Grateful my brother got a new job after being out of work for three years,” wrote an Austin, Texas, resident for one dot on the map.
“I love what I do and the people I work with,” wrote someone in Tupelo, Miss.
“I’m thankful my boss/landlord helped me get apartment so my boys and I wouldn’t be homeless. I still need a warm place for my chickens,” jotted another.
So many people have chimed in that the 3,300th dot on the World Gratitude Map came this past April to mark Miami’s (albeit brief) Guinness World Record for the Largest Food Truck Parade with 62 food trucks.
Gratitude can be transformative. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that writing daily about things that make you grateful brings a better sense of well-being and optimism, and appears to lead to better, deeper sleep.
“The stories we tell create the people we become,” says Jacqueline Lewis, who blogs about resilience at GlobalResilience.net. Her mother’s experience of seeking out stories of hope and generosity helped create the sunny world she chose to live in. “We’d say, ‘In Joannie’s World, the sun is always shining, people wake up singing, and the cocoa is made from scratch.’ ”
Joan Lewis herself was taken aback as more months passed, letting her add and cross off more bucket-list items, including watching from her wheelchair the University of Connecticut women’s team play a March 2011 NCAA tournament game. (She flirted with a police officer there, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter noted. “I don’t miss any opportunities, you know,” she quipped.)
“These last 18 months have been like Tom Sawyer’s funeral, a chance to hear and be surprised by people thanking me for affecting them. I am so blessed, the luckiest woman on Earth, really,” Lewis told a reporter via email for an April 1, 2011, article in The Citizens’ Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “I especially love the notes that tell me what good deeds people have done in honor of ‘Joannie from Pringle.’ ”
Her luck eventually ran out. Twenty months after her diagnosis, Lewis, 74, passed away in her bed at home surrounded by sweet-scented cut rhododendrons, lilacs and roses. This coming May 7 marks the third anniversary. Reflects daughter Jacqueline: “Her 20-month survival was nothing short of miraculous—but it’s not just the length of time which is notable here.”
Try This Gratitude Exercise
For the next five days, do the following daily:
Think of three things that happened that day for which you’re grateful. Jot them down. As days pass, you may notice that you’re now on the lookout throughout the day for reasons to be grateful. You may easily come up with a dozen candidates that you’ll winnow to three for your list—and your attitude will perk up as you start to see the world in a more positive light, says Jacqueline Lewis, co-founder of the World Gratitude Map and blogger at GlobalResilience.net.