Gratitude When We Least Expect ItGratitude: so plentiful when things are going well, and when they aren't, so scarce. Right? Click To Tweet At least that’s how it feels. There is little effort required to feel so grateful for what seem to be the smallest things when life is good; when times get tough, that’s the challenge. And that, as we are told by those positive-affirmation people, is when we NEED to find our gratitude most.
While I’m not a fan of being coached how to feel (in general), I have found, to my own surprise, that there is wisdom to be found in that advice. Not in the actual finding of the gratitude, or the things for which I am grateful, but in the looking itself.Sometimes I really want to feel grateful and I just simply cannot access it Click To Tweet Then I feel bad about that: does that make me a negative-affirmation person? It seems like the harder I try, the more elusive it becomes. I sometimes practice saying 5 things I’m grateful for as soon as I wake up. My health, my family, my dear friends, meaningful work, having my basic needs met. But after a while, those start to sound stale and ring empty.
Surprisingly–to no one more than to me–I have found gratitude right smack dab in the middle of what feel like the most devastating life situations. It has appeared in the most unexpected ways; honestly, most easily when I was not looking for it. But what preceded it was fascinating: I did something different. I allowed myself my feelings. Some call that wallowing-for most of my life, I did as well. Now I call it honoring where I am. And it took me 20 years as a therapist, and a client, to get there! And it was only once I could do that, that gratitude appeared, as if out of nowhere.
At first, it didn’t make sense to me. How could I feel grateful when everything was so terrible?
Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous author, posted on Facebook a few years ago that rather than making New Year’s Resolutions, she created a Happiness Jar. She posted a photo with her holding this enormous jar full of folded up pieces of paper. Each day, she’d write down what made her happy, or for what she was grateful. At the end of the year, she’d read them. My initial response to this was my response to the positive-affirmers: don’t try to MAKE people feel happy and grateful if they are not! Then I read her post. And I’m so glad I did.
“Happiness comes in the sideways moments, the humble moments. And every single day, no matter how great or horrible, has one happiest moment (or at least one “least horrible” moment — some of my happy moments, for instances, have been times when a friend comforted me during a spell of grief.) It’s worth it to record these moments, because they are fleeting and precious beyond measure. And someday, reading them over, they will make you happy all over again.”
And I find the same with gratitude. When it slips in, previously unnoticed, I try to notice it. Even if I’m having such a bad day (or days or week or month) and I don’t WANT to feel it, I try to give it a place in my heart.
The single most difficult thing I’ve experienced in my life was the sudden, unexpected loss of my dearest, closest, part-of-my-insides friend, just a month after her wedding. To say I was devastated was an understatement. Everything felt raw, the sun shone way too brightly, and people going about their business as if nothing had happened was a total shock to me.
And…people showed up for me. They could get closer to my heart, because it was so exposed. I could feel the love and the support and the connection much more strongly. I wished it wasn’t for the reason it was, but I could not deny that the depth of the love often matched the depth of the grief.The thing about hardship is this: it makes everything shine brighter Click To TweetThe pain, the loss, the grief, the anger, the powerlessness…and the gratitude.
Last year, I bought 2-gallon pickle jars for my teenaged nieces, my best friend, and myself. We all decorated them. I don’t put a piece of paper in every day, but when I remember to…well, it helps. I can find my gratitude just by pulling out a piece of paper and pen with the intention of putting it in that jar. No matter how tough things are, no matter how bleak things look. Perhaps, now, especially when things get hard.
I am looking forward to New Year’s Day, when I take out all the papers and read all of the grateful moments of joy I have already forgotten happened this year.
E.B. Wexler, LCSW-C is a writer, a clinical social worker, an educator, a kids yoga teacher, and a trained mindfulness facilitator. She has been practicing clinical social work for 25 years, working with a variety of populations.
She has been published on the Manifest Station (www.themanifeststation.net), Patch.com, SPARK (www.getsparked.org) and Smile Hon, You’re In Baltimore!