Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Grace of Gratitude

By Marlene Depler

Thou who hast given us so much,
mercifully grant us one more thing—
a grateful heart.

-George Herbert

"Count your blessings."

"Look on the bright side."

"Cheer up! Be thankful. It could be worse."

As a child, I heard responses like these from many adults in my life. I'm guessing that these comments were an attempt to make me feel better. But that wasn't what happened. Instead, my feelings of sadness, disappointment, or frustration felt negated. Even though there was an element of truth in what was said, this type of response only caused me to feel diminished and dismissed. It didn't seem to matter that a teacher had been unfair or that I wasn't invited to the slumber party. Whatever my difficulty, struggle, challenge, or pain, it seemed unimportant. My feelings were brushed aside and minimized. I learned to bury them. Eventually, I became the one who chided myself with the same kind of responses whenever I encountered anything that adversely affected me.
In my late thirties, I slowly learned to stop pretending and denying my current struggles and past hurts. I began to validate my own experience and feelings. If someone hurt me with harsh words or if I experienced disappointment or difficulty, I no longer tried to brush it off. In this place of honesty, sometimes I felt like a first-class whiner. Fortunately for me, I had a few patient listeners.

I needed this season to learn that it was okay to be honest about the reality of my experience and to learn not to minimize my pain. However, over time, I concluded that this honesty could comfortably co-exist with gratitude. So I made a choice to incorporate gratitude into my life, not because of someone else's "guilting" remarks, but because I saw the personal value of it.
The intermingling of both has given me a greater equilibrium—a more balanced perspective. All of life is not bad, and neither is it all good. Life is much like my rose garden. The roses are beautiful in color and their sweet fragrance permeates the summer breeze. Yet these same roses have sharp thorns that have often brought me pain. I accept both.
At first I attempted to keep a gratitude journal as suggested in the book Simple Abundance. For a litany of reasons, I was inconsistent at best. Then I decided on a plan that worked for me. Each night in the quiet darkness just before falling asleep, I recount anything about the day that I found pleasant or enjoyable, anything for which I could be thankful. As I recite in silence a list of things both great and small for which I feel grateful, I am reminded that life itself is a gift.
Last night I thanked God for a pleasant lunch with a friend, my evening walk in the freshness of spring, my unexpected gift for my new office, and the valuable information that I learned from my writing mentor. Before I knew it, I had drifted off to sleep with a heart filled with gratitude.
I would be the first to admit that there are days when it is much more difficult to find things for which to be grateful. On those days I’m thankful for things like indoor plumbing, the end of the day, my bed, and soft flannel sheets as I pull them over my head.
As unlikely as it may seem, I even found reason to be thankful in the midst of great pain. When my mother slipped away unexpectedly from this life. In my sadness, I could thank God that she didn't have to experience prolonged suffering—that she didn't know she had breast cancer. (The test results from the biopsy came back the day she died.) The kind and capable nurses were another reason for which I felt immense gratitude. I was also grateful I arrived before she died, and that I was able to be at her side when she drew her last breath. In my anguish, God gave me many things for which I could say thank you. I did not use my gratefulness to minimize my pain. Rather I used it as a rudder with which to navigate through the pain.
A few years ago, I received a newsletter in the mailbox. The front-page article was about the physical health benefits of gratitude. (And for that article, I am grateful!) Dr. Christiane Northrup states that feeling thankful for as little as 15-20 seconds causes many physiological benefits, such as a decrease in stress hormones which enhances the immune system, the oxygen level in the tissues increases as breathing becomes deeper, and the coronary arteries relax which increases the blood supply to the heart. Northrup concludes, "No matter what's going on in the world, the economy, or the news, you have the power within you to create the biochemistry of gratitude right now."[1] I had no idea that gratitude was good for my health!
I won't be presumptuous and tell you that you SHOULD count your blessings. Rather I hope that by sharing my story a seed of possibility will be sown for you. Consider a "gratitude journal" to record the things that have brought you blessing or joy today. Or choose something else that fits your personality. Perhaps you may first need to explore the roots of your unhappiness or depression before you can genuinely move toward thankfulness. It's your journey. Proceed at your own pace.
As for me, I have come to believe that gratitude has the power to change me, so I will continue to nudge myself to practice this graceful attitude while still honestly acknowledging the reality of my daily difficulties. I desire to appreciate and say “thank you” for all that is good in my life. Yet I will also acknowledge the sad and the bad. A grateful heart—my heart's desire.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
-Melody Beattie
Copyright by Marlene Depler
To reprint in any format, by permission only

[1] Christiane Northrup, M.D., "Cultivating Gratitude," A Grain of Salt, Spring 2002, Happiness Press, Asheville, NC.
[2] Melody Beattie, The Language Of Letting Go, (New York: Harper/Hazelden Books, 1990), p. 218.


Kerri said...

Hi Marlene, I visited you recently and caught up with your latest posts. I thought I'd left a comment, but can't find one. Sorry about that. I agree wholeheartedly that a grateful heart and a thankful attitude is a health enhancer for the mind and body. How can we not find gratitude in our hearts when we see the faces of our wonderful grandchildren (and children)? Your photos are wonderful and so is your writing. Thanks so much for sharing. I hope you had a very happy Thanksgiving celebration.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post and oh so true. I use to write in the same book and I love the idea of falling to sleep thanking God for all the good things that happened that day.