I joke around a lot on my blog. I may even kid about whining, but that is only in the blogosphere. I don’t whine in reality. I’m probably more like a Scandinavian stoic muscling through it whatever it is. There is, however, a better way to get through life than relying on stoicism much to my Swedish grandfather’s disappointment. There is gratitude.
That’s a weird thought to have particularly when one is suffering, but I’ve found that cultivating gratitude during times of suffering is probably one of the best ways to navigate the white waters of uncertainty. Oftentimes, when we are struggling with pain, we don’t know what’s going to happen next. Pain comes in so many forms. Long-term unemployment, for example, can lead to homelessness, bankruptcy, loss of community and friendships, divorce, PTSD, and long-term financial and mental health issues. How can one be thankful in circumstances like that? That’s a valid question. Each person lives in a situation unique to them. The effort to cultivate gratitude will be their own vocation.
“Many scientific studies, including research by renowned psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, have found that people who consciously focus on gratitude experience greater emotional well-being and physical health than those who don’t. In comparison with control groups, those who cultivated a grateful outlook:
- Felt better about their lives as a whole
- Experienced greater levels of joy and happiness
- Felt optimistic about the future
- Got sick less often
- Exercised more regularly
- Had more energy, enthusiasm, determination, and focus
- Made greater progress toward achieving important personal goals
- Slept better and awoke feeling refreshed
- Felt stronger during trying times
- Enjoyed closer family ties
- Were more likely to help others and offer emotional support
- Experienced fewer symptoms of stress” (online source)
Clearly, gratitude has an impact on our physiology. It’s important. So, how do we do it particularly if we are facing trying circumstances? I can only speak for myself, but perhaps you will find my approach helpful–or not.
When Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance hit the bookstores over a decade ago, I read it and thought, “Huh. I take a lot for granted.” I wasn’t judging myself. It was just a fact. I, therefore, set out to try to pay attention to what I actually had vs. what I wished I had. Think in terms of something that you really need breaking down…like your toilet. Go three days without a toilet and, suddenly, you could not care less that you have that awesome flat screen TV you always wanted. All you really want is your toilet! Just a nice, clean toilet to call your own. That is now your definition of bliss. Milly did flush a popsicle stick down our one and only toilet two years ago, and we did lose the use of our toilet for three days. For our entire family, the definition of heaven on earth became having a toilet. Granted, we gained a new appreciation for our neighbor who granted us access to his basement toilet at all hours of the night, but there’s nothing quite like having your own toilet.
This is how the seeds of true gratitude are planted–often in loss however small that loss might be. We go without something we love or need for a time and realize the value of what we had. Even if it’s just our favorite t-shirt being lost to the washing machine. Some people have sensory integration disorder and must wear the same shirt daily. It’s very hard for them to change out of certain items of clothing. When they must wear something else, they experience tremendous gratitude while waiting for their beloved item of clothing and an almost euphoric rush when donning their favorite garment again. Perhaps it is going without that much needed and favorite cup of morning coffee due to running late. All at once, coffee becomes the apple of your eye. The beloved. The one thing in life for which you are temporarily most thankful. It is lost to you for a few hours, and your pounding headache is reminding you just how much you love and miss your favorite morning beverage. You feel grateful and, of course, desperate. It might sound silly and “first world”, but you have to start somewhere.
With that reframe in mind–that we can learn to cultivate gratitude in the face of loss–how might we begin to feel thankful now even if we are in trying circumstances?
Well, when Grace was in the worst of her decline, daily life changed. Every day felt like a weird, scary, new day because I didn’t know what each day would bring. Would we return to the Behavioral Health ER? Would she try to stab herself? Would she have a good day? Would she be able to leave the house? How would my other daughters be affected? What about my other daughters? There were so many other factors to consider. I felt fear, but I didn’t have the luxury to indulge it. I had to get up, face each day with whatever courage I could muster, and be present. I had to be Mom even if I didn’t want to be. How does one do that? How does one not start out in a negative head space if everything looks so bad? Gratitude. I had to start finding things for which I could be thankful, and, after making that a discipline, it became a habit.
Initially, it looked like this:
What am I thankful for today?
- Running, potable water that will be cold when I want it to be cold and hot when I want it to be hot.
- Hot showers
- My Keurig
- Peet’s coffee for my Keurig
- Whipped cream
- Sunny days
- My cats
- My friends
- My husband. He picks up his underwear and his dirty socks. He also fixes my laptop when it misbehaves.
- My bed. I have a soft bed to sleep in.
- My house. I have a home and so do my kids.
- My health insurance. I have access to great doctors and so do my kids even though we have to wait our turn sometimes.
- My Kindle. I have a veritable library with me at all times.
When you actually take the time to write out a list, even in the middle of walking through something horrible, you can see light again. No, you are not suddenly Pollyanna. That’s not the point. The point is that nothing is black-and-white. Just because your life is overtaken with something tragic or even catastrophic, life still goes on. We must still construct and create a life worth living. We must still find our joy. Gratitude is often the foundation for that. Gratitude is actually how I have flourished through Grace’s illness. It’s how I did well after Milly got her autism diagnosis. It’s how I kept going after Eadaoin told me she was cutting. It’s how I will find my way through my current health problem.
What am I thankful for today?
- Green tea
- Dr. Terry Wahls and her willingness to blaze a trail for the rest of us
- The possibility that it might be 70 degrees on Wednesday
- Health insurance. Always health insurance
- My husband’s sense of humor
- “Parks and Recreation”
- My daughters
- My friends
- Thong underwear (no panty lines!)
- Coconut milk
- Maple syrup
- Paddywax candles particularly the one scented Chamomile and Fig
- The ingenuity of 3M
Sometimes, when the day has been particularly rough, my list looks like this:
What am I thankful for today?
- that today is over.
- that tomorrow is a new day and I get to start fresh.
Gratitude might seem like a first world luxury to some people, but it’s actually foundational to living a healthy life no matter what your life looks like. Make your own list! Pass it on.
“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” –Albert Schweitzer