How can anyone possibly have trouble with gratitude? I appreciate knowing when someone is thankful for something I’ve provided. And I want others to have that feeling as well. But last week when I was working on a project centering around gratitude, I found myself writing things like: Gratitude is a hard pill to swallow; and gratitude may be an attitude, but it’s not mine.
Typing out whatever pops into my head can help me get past a writing obstacle. Once the word flow begins, I quickly delete whatever nonsense I’ve been typing and forget about it. In this context, my seemingly bad attitude toward gratitude is a normal part of the process. What I wrote made me laugh and laughter is a catalyst for moving me forward.
But like all things funny, this makes me laugh because some kernel of truth resonates. I am truly grateful for many things. I’m grateful that I am resilient. I know how to gather myself up after a setback and try again. I know how to work past fear to meet a goal. I know how to temper my desire for immediate gratification. I understand the value of these skills and appreciate how they have helped me succeed.
While all of this is true, gratitude can also feel like a catch-22. Usually, I feel this way on days when something has triggered the sting of early memories. Some of my best skills were honed in (because of) less than ideal circumstances. And some days, for a few moments, the feelings pull me away from gratitude. That’s how I sometimes have a problem with gratitude.
I’m not proud of those moments, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has them. And that is why practicing gratitude in a deliberate way is important for me. If I’m not intentional, it’s easier to lapse into old feelings rather than look at the good that surrounds me in any given moment.
It would be easy to say that if I did a proper job healing myself, that would not be the case. Anyone who believes that fails to understand the grasp long-term trauma can have on the subconscious. When damage has been done over a long period of years with no relief, the undoing can be nuanced, lengthy, and less than linear.
There is no such thing as a proper path of healing for any of us. Life will throw unexpected obstacles in our way. Serendipitous meetings will bring unexpected support. The path will shift and we must shift with it.
The best I can do is live with open eyes, open heart, and intentional action. The rest is beyond my control. Sometimes, I will feel truly grateful. Sometimes, I will know I’m grateful even when what I feel is sad. And that will have to be enough.
Hopefully, it’s enough for all of us who, at times, have trouble with gratitude.
Hopefully, some of us are focusing on thankfulness and
gratitude this week. Most every conversation I’ve overheard has been food related.
Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about food. But I don’t really need a
holiday to make that happen.
The Thanksgiving holiday is a great time to take a moment to
notice how I feel about what I have. And not just how I feel about what I have,
but what I’ve learned and experienced, and who I’ve known.
This became clear to me last night when I read an article
celebrating a journalist with whom I worked 33 years ago. I was immediately
transported back to how it felt to be surrounded by a quirky cast of larger-than-life
It felt great. I hated my ad sales job, but I loved hanging
in the newsroom listening to the banter. It took the distance of time to
separate how I felt about the job from how I feel about the people. And recognizing
that the feelings are the thing that stuck is instructive.
Without photos, I remember one pair of pants, one skirt, and
one shirt I owned. I remember the house I lived in, but not my bedspread or
where each picture hung. The things that stand out are people and events.
I don’t mean big events like trips. I mean things like a
catfish in the bathtub, burning the furniture to stay warm, standing at a
window at work watching cars slowly slide in the snow, learning to waterski
with the kids, hugging my favorite customers, happy hour with friends.
Looking back, I appreciate each of those things in a
different way than I did at the time. And I clearly recognize that what I
possessed at any given moment has faded into the background.
As I practice gratitude this week, I’m using this insight to
target people, events, and feelings rather than possessions. I will acknowledge
my gratitude for the ease of having a car to drive to work, the feeling of
security provided by food in the refrigerator, the warmth of a hug from the
grandkids, the joy of watching them learn self-control, and the beauty of the sun
through the palm trees.
I don’t know whether this shift in focus will change my
experience of thankfulness and gratitude, but it feels like the right thing to
do. If I’m given insight and don’t use it, I feel like I’m disrespecting
something larger than myself.
Wishing you and your family the chance to make memories that
help you feel safe, secure, peaceful, content, loved, and amused this holiday!
It’s Thanksgiving week, let’s breathe our way through a gratitude workout. A study of the effects of the pandemic showed that 90% of us have been emotionally affected by it. That’s really not surprising. But for 25% of us, this has resulted in depression. While a temporary state of depression is a natural response to change, it’s possible some will experience long-term or clinical depression as time goes on.
Many Americans are facing trauma and hardship they’ve never
seen before – job loss, hunger, severe illness, loss of family, lack of
physical contact, unsafe working conditions, and more. This takes a toll even
on the strongest and healthiest of us. Yet some will rise to the occasion, feel
the effects, find a way to cope, and thrive in the future. Others will become
stuck. Genetics, personality, support, and choices all play a role in how we fare.
Even when outside support is lacking, we can become our own
support system by building the emotional resilience that will facilitate processing
through difficulty and coming out the other side better than before. This can
be accomplished through deliberate practices. One tool to build an emotional
toolkit is a gratitude practice. I’ve written about this before because it’s
always a wonderfully useful tool, but it seems especially important right now.
So much of our cultural conversation is focused on what we
don’t have, can’t do, can’t buy, can’t see, can’t experience that we’re at risk
of losing sight of the good that surrounds us. A gratitude workout may be just
the shift in focus that revitalizes us when we’re dining alone this week.
I’ve used many techniques for practicing gratitude. I
started with a series of journals. In those books, I made a list every day of
10 things for which I was grateful. On days when most everything had gone
wrong, I had to sit for a very long time to think of that first item. But I’m
sure you’ll find as I did that once you think of one thing, you’ll think of
more because your focus has finally shifted.
One year, I used a series of neon colored post-its that I
collected in a brightly colored plastic box with a pull-out drawer. At the end
of each month, I’d go back and read all of the notes. It was a great way to
gain perspective on the events of the month. If I gleaned an insight that
seemed particularly significant, I’d record it somewhere to ponder later.
The specifics of how you record your lists are not as
important as the discipline of doing it. In fact, it’s the discipline that will
pave the way for the greatest insight. Those moments when you really don’t feel
grateful for anything will get you to dig deeper. But you won’t dig deeper
unless disciplined commitment to the process requires that you record
something. It’s a lot easier to eat ice cream and pout.
This week of Thanksgiving, you may not be with family. That
brings the temptation to only see what’s missing. That’s why I’m planning to combine
two practices and breathe my way through a gratitude workout.
How? Before I prepare my Cornish hen, I’m spending some time
on my yoga mat. I’m going to sit in easy pose (Sukhasana)
or stand in mountain pose (Tadasana) and slow my breath bringing my focus to my
sit bones or the four corners of my feet, my thighs, my shoulders, my neck, my
face. Once I’ve found the balance between effort and ease, I’ll begin to
breathe my gratitude. A long breath in through the nose and a slow breath out
for each item on my list. I may add a twist in between and a series of warrior
poses before I rest in corpse pose (Savasana).
I’ll express gratitude for
grocery delivery, Zoom & FaceTime, the warm weather that made fresh
tomatoes and spinach from the garden possible for Thanksgiving, the flavor of
those tomatoes, my grandchildren’s laughter, the internet, the heart of
healthcare workers, brilliant maple leaves, and strong oak trees with rough
None of those are equal to
sitting around the table with my family, but grocery delivery means I have
groceries without virus exposure. Zoom and the internet mean I’ll can see my family
in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago. Fresh vegetables
from my garden mean both healthy and tasty food. And cooking for one rather
than a large group means I have time to sit still. Things don’t have to be
perfect to enrich my life or make things better than they would be otherwise. I
can be grateful for things that are just okay.
In fact, I am grateful for things that are just okay as well as things that are magnificent. But it’s easy to miss the magnificent if I only focus on what is wrong. In this year when it feels like so much has gone awry, a gratitude workout is just what the doctor ordered.
Peace and healing go hand in hand. In war torn countries, health initiatives can be used for peace building. In our homes, something similar can happen when we make healing a priority.
Times of illness or recovery can put a strain on families. Exhaustion, shock, sadness, pain, and discomfort make it difficult to be at our best. But finding peace in every day can help create an environment that encourages healing.
After six months of improving health, we recently learned that my 18-month-old granddaughter has developed a quick growing muscle that is obstructing the flow of blood from her aorta. Removal and repair will require another open-heart surgery (her third). If we’re lucky, this will take place in about six months. If she gets sick this cold and flu season, the surgery may need to happen sooner. It will be more difficult than her previous surgeries and will threaten the still fragile heart repairs made last year.
From April 2018 to April 2019, she was hospitalized six times for an amount of time equaling six months. At the time, she had one sibling. Next time around, she’ll have two and one will be a newborn. That means it will take all of us to keep things going. We know what it’s like. We just lived through a similar year.
After trying unsuccessfully to hold onto some semblance of my previous normal, gone are my plans to move to another state. Gone are vacations. I just managed a trip to see my other new grandson, but lying on the beach, a cruise, the NCAA tournament, or a week at a spa are beyond reach for now.
Letting go of some positive activities has been a necessity. I prioritize getting enough sleep, eating reasonably well, working out 150 minutes per week, and grouping work into efficient batches. Most weeks meeting these goals plus family care duties puts me at capacity.
With waves of added responsibility arriving over the past three years, I am beginning to recognize new effects of the relentlessness. I’ve noticed when I feel any slight hint of relaxing into the warm feeling of a beautiful day or happy anticipation of the future, I immediately tamp it down. Then I feel sad, perhaps from a sense of loss.
At this point I’m not able to slow the process down enough to figure out the exact order in which the emotions arrive. Do I feel sad and that makes me pull back happiness, or do I feel happy and that triggers the sadness of loss? I don’t know. Maybe I don’t need to. I’m aware of the problem and sometimes that’s all that’s needed to find a solution.
What remains when life gets tough are the everyday tasks-finding food, taking a shower, throwing out the trash, putting gas in the car, and choosing clothes to wear. In fact, the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows that most of our time outside of work and sleep is spent on everyday tasks.
It’s so easy to dread doing the laundry or the dishes or mowing the lawn, especially when we’re exhausted and stressed. And yet those tasks remain. Even if we hire someone to cook, clean, and mow, we still must bathe ourselves and brush our teeth occasionally.
Logic tells me that when most of the time available is filled with the tasks of everyday living, then that is the place in which I must find peace. I’m not exactly there yet, but I can visualize it-relaxing into the comfort of routine, not wondering what to do next, relying on muscle memory and allowing the mind to drift and quiet.
If you’re concerned that your mind will twist with worry instead, you have not yet experienced the state I’m describing. Neither had I prior to the past year. There is a point at which all energy has been harnessed to deal with the decisions and tasks of a given moment. In other words, the present is too absorbing to allow for speculation.
I wish you the chance to avoid reaching this point in your lifetime, but for some it will be unavoidable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 16,000 infants per year have surgery for congenital heart defects and an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 aortic valve replacements are done on aortic stenosis patients in the US each year.
As I embark upon this next difficult journey through childcare and family support, here is how I will seek peace in every day:
I will create a list for my day of things I hope to do. I will set the intention to feel good about any and everything I accomplish. If I don’t get to something, I will move it to tomorrow’s list, next week’s list, or let it go.
When I wash dishes, I will notice the warmth of the water, the lemony smell of the dishwashing liquid, and the green plants outside the window. I’ll feel my feet solidly planted on the floor. I’ll let thoughts and feelings flow and go.
When I do laundry, I’ll take a moment to bury my face in the warm towels from the dryer and breathe in their fresh scent.
I’ll make sure to breathe when I’m on my yoga mat and consciously relax large muscle groups in order to stretch my fascia.
When I water the plants, I will savor the smell of rosemary and mint.
I will wear clothes that feel good.
I will lean into hugs.
I will say yes to help when it’s sincerely offered.
I will absorb comfort and compliments.
I will cut short phone calls or visits that do not feel supportive and will be willing to put friendships on hold or let them go when they feel draining.
While I may not take the time to record gratitude, I will take note each time I feel grateful.
I will count progress toward a goal as accomplishment.
I will trust myself, my judgment, and my shifting priorities.
I will let myself change.
Significant life events may mean we are never again the person we once were. This can feel like loss. That loss must be grieved. But all loss is also gain of something new and different. What we make of that gain can mean peace or turmoil. I may not get there immediately, but I am committed to using hard lessons as steps on a path toward peace.
This moment is all we know we have. If this is as good as it gets, then I have to let it be good enough. I will begin with finding peace in every day and trust that peace can lead me to joy.
I wish you both peace and joy in life’s easiest and most difficult moments.