Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Grad School · Mental Health · Personal · Recovery · Religious

An Intention for All of Us: Cultivating Gratitude

grat·i·tude | ˈgratəˌt(y)o͞od/ | noun

1. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

Is it too late to say “Happy New Year”? I personally don’t think so, but I’ve been having an overall very happy new year, indeed. I know that, at this point, you probably have an estimate for yourself about whether 2017 is going in a happy direction or not.

[image description: the cover of Laura Bratton’s book. It’s a white background with a picture of her, smiling, in a black dress and her black seeing eye dog next to her. In a larger font, it says “Harnessing Courage” and in a smaller font, it says “Overcoming Adversity with Grit & Gratitude.”]
I had the pleasure of hearing Laura Bratton, the author of “Harnessing Courage: Overcoming Adversity with Grit & Gratitude”, speak a few months ago. She’s an alumna from my seminary, a dear friend of some of my dear friends, and, most importantly, a powerful and beloved woman of God who has a powerful story about experiencing struggles related to disability (blindness) and other parts of life, living through them, and living fully – not just surviving. She talked about the crucial combination of grit and gratitude to do that.

Easier said than done, no? How do you find things to be grateful for in the midst of intense troubles that we honestly couldn’t be less grateful to have? We find reasons to be grateful in what surrounds it – people who help us, experiences we have, objects that make a difference, and any beautiful surroundings we get to enjoy. This is something that can help us not only in the short-term, but also the long-term.

We don’t have to be grateful for the difficulty itself; in fact, that’s not really all that healthy. For example, I’m not grateful to have chronic pain; I would take it away if I could. (Trust me.) But I have so much to be grateful for that I otherwise maybe wouldn’t have. I have friends that I’ve met through shared struggles – friends who have become like family. I have more empathy and compassion for other people who are struggling. And I have a perspective on life that is quite different from many people my age because I know what it feels like to lose everything and to have to build back again. And in the process, God found me and I became a Christian. Those are beautiful aspects of my life that have arisen from this less beautiful reality. Gratitude cultivation helps me remember and focus on the better aspects of an otherwise dark situation – because to be honest, it’s far healthier to look for the positives than the “why”s of a bad thing happened in the first place.

So, why did I start this post with “Happy New Year”? Because at that precious point in time every 365 (or 366) days, we tend to believe in our capacities to change much more than we do the rest of the year. We all go into the new year with hope in the quantities that border on naïveté, but by now, we’re all starting to understand what faces us (rather than the blank slate of resolutions that we haven’t slipped up on yet), and it’s easy to get frustrated, stuck, and, worst, cynical.

Cynicism is the opposite of gratitude. It’s a defense mechanism brought on by a long period of struggle. It’s cheap and easy, and it’s cowardly. It’s sold-out. It closes us to the surprises of life and shuts us off from the joy of living with our hearts open. It’s scary to do that, but the costs are too high.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is way easier said than done, though, no? Laura’s story that she shares in her book shows that you can be in the midst of trauma, difficulty, new realities, and loss – truly, right in the midst of it – and find reasons to be grateful. Just make sure not to move from grief to gratitude too quickly or it will feel fake. As she put it when I got to meet her, “Sit at the bottom, acknowledge the realness of your grief, and get up and start again.” Your own pace is something that you’ll have to figure out over time, and the grit that takes you from grief to gratitude may start with others first. “Encouragement” means to give courage, after all! Lean on, start with, and gain courage from others, and eventually, you’ll get there yourself.

Today, I encourage you to take stock of some of the gifts of your life and be grateful. Whether you have thousands of reasons to rejoice, I believe in your ability to find them.

To get more in touch with a feeling of gratitude for the blessings (big and small) in your life, especially in hard times, there are few better practices than beginning a gratitude journal. For 365 days, I ended my day by writing down 5 things that I was grateful for that day. No matter how terrible a day it was – even if a few of the things included “I am grateful for pain-killers, my bed, pillows, etc.” – I always made it to 5, and it always made me smile. I still smile when looking back on that time – it was a tiny practice that showed me my own resilience in difficulty and the abundance of goodness I was surrounded by. I still practice it sometimes because of how effective I found it (Thanksgiving 2016New Year 2017).

[image description: The word “gratitude” in my handwritten script on a white piece of paper].
Anywhere between 3-5 seems to be the best number for this practice, according to positive psychology research. The way that Laura Bratton reframed this popular practice was: “What surrounded, helped, and empowered me on this day?” Even on those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days, you just might be able to find 3-5. I know I did. If you’re struggling to still your mind and identify the 3-5 pieces after a long and difficult day, I would take a few minutes to practice mindfulness, whether through coloring, meditation, an Examen prayer, or reading books like Laura’s or Brené Brown‘s (or watching a talk by these fabulous folks and others like them). That little self-care practice may end up being something to be grateful for in itself!

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” – John F. Kennedy

Go, therefore, and be grateful. You’ll bring something beautiful to others and yourself in doing so, and you may even start a chain reaction.

3 thoughts on “An Intention for All of Us: Cultivating Gratitude

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