This is a blog post that I started writing in January of 2014. I never posted it because it never felt finished or “wrapped up” and sometimes I really struggle with pushing “publish” on topics that are so personal and heartfelt. But these same sentiments have been on my mind a lot over the course of the last year. Chalk it up to my goal this year to make my blog content more in-depth.
Warning: this is a long post. Grab a cup of tea and stay a while.
Have you heard about the word-of-the-year trend? Instead of making a list of New Year’s goals or resolutions, you simply choose one word to focus on for the year. I’ve never chosen one before, because I always have bigger/longer/list-ier ideas for things I want to accomplish within the year. You can see my list for 2015, here (along with links to past year’s goals). I would look at that list and never be able to narrow things down to just one word, just one idea.
However, over the past year or so, there has been one word that has consistently been on my mind.
Everyone has heard the word, everyone has something to be thankful for. I’m thankful for my husband, family, job, home, skills, etc. But what has really been on my mind is practicing a heart of gratitude. Not just being thankful for the big, lovely things in your life, but spending each day truly focusing on every little thing you have to be grateful for. Allowing yourself to mentally give those things higher priority over the small, negative little details that can seep into our souls. And being grateful for even the not-so-great life moments. Because we aren’t just made up of lovely, beautiful, happy moments. The not-so-great make us who we are too.
When something bad happens in your day isn’t it so easy to get caught up in it? Let it dictate the rest of your day and control your actions? Let it make you upset/mad/angry. That anger can even seep over into the next day or the next if we let it (or unfortunately for some, can seep into their entire lives making them constantly bitter and angry). It makes us question our overall happiness, our overall blessings. It is so easy to get caught up in a culture of complaint. We let those negative moments take over our lives, rule our lunch discussions with a friend, control our thoughts and actions, maybe even let them take over our relationships and our marriages. Make us become critical, harsh, and condescending people.
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are still seeped in hurt and resentment. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of a complaint.” -Henri Nouwen
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be controlled by every negative thing that happens in my life. Those negative moments can easily overshadow all the wonderful aspects of our lives, if we let them. I want to choose joy. Rejoicing. Gratitude.
Here is an excerpt from Henri Nouwen’s “Bread for the Journey” that has really stuck with me since I first read it a year or so ago. On the Spiritual Work of Gratitude:
“To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for. Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.” -Henri Nouwen
Around this time last year, I was invited through work (I work at a church) to go on their annual women’s retreat. The theme of the retreat was “Rejoice!” and its primary focus was on cultivating a heart of gratitude. One of the lectures from the speaker was about “desert blooms” — otherwise known as happy or positive moments/events/outcomes in life during a period that otherwise looks pretty grim or desert-like. We had to complete an exercise where we wrote down all the “deserts” of our lives — all the big, bad moments, the terrible events and losses, the periods of life that seemed so grim that no good could possibly come from them. Then, on the other side of the page, directly across from our deserts, we had to list our “blooms” — the positive outcomes that had come, even in the midst of hurt and sorrow.
I have to say, this exercise was pretty eye-opening for me. I’m young, so I understandably haven’t been through a plethora of deserts, but everyone has their tough moments. A few examples from my life:
1. My college years. As you might know from reading this blog for a while, college was a rough time for me. I was stressed, exhausted, depressed, overworked, lonely, missed my family and missed getting to always be around for various events, struggled with figuring out what I wanted to do and worried about not being able to study what I wanted, and I also had a slew of health problems, just to name a few. After I graduated (and figured out my health issues!) things got much better, but I had still gotten into the habit of reflecting back on my college years as a “rough time” in life. Through my constant labeling of college as “bad” I had begun to overlook the good things that happened during those years. And a lot of good things happened! Drew and I moved to a new place, got to explore and learn the culture and fall in love with New Orleans, we grew immensely in our relationship because we were so isolated from the rest of our families, we got engaged, got married, and moved into our first apartment together. We also started a business, met a lot of new people, learned a lot of really neat things, and we paved the path that is leading us down our lives/careers today. That is just a few of the good things that happened, and already “my college years” aren’t sounding so bad, huh?
2. The death of my Mamaw. This one has always been particularly hard. I was incredibly close to my Mamaw (read more about her, here) and her death came suddenly and unexpectedly. Since I was only 15 when she died, I really struggled with her death. Not only because I missed her, but because I was too young to have thought to ask her about so much of her life and I had lost my chance. Mamaw didn’t drive, so we had so many activities planned for when I turned 16. Me taking her to her beauty-shop appointments, us going on shopping trips together, none of which were ever realized. Her death lingered with me for years (and still does). I miss her and wish that I’d had those moments with her, to drive her around, to talk with her about her life, to ask her for guidance, about marriage, about tough times. But, this exercise in gratitude made me realize something I had never considered before. Her passing before my Papaw gave me the ability to get to know him, where I otherwise might not have. My whole childhood, I would run into Mamaw and Papaw’s house and dart right past Papaw, who would always be sitting in his recliner in the living room, and run straight to the back of the house, where Mamaw would be in her recliner reading or watching TV. I do have memories with Papaw from my childhood, him telling me stories or letting me help him in the garden, but I really never took the time to chat with him and get to know him until Mamaw passed away and I couldn’t just dart past him to get on with my business. My Papaw’s death last Spring really drove that point home. I’m so grateful for those last 8 years I had with Papaw. To chat with him about his life, to listen to his stories.
I can’t say that I’ve become anything close to an expert in appreciating life’s toughest moments. It is certainly a continual process and it takes time. The last year has been (and continues to be) a really rough time for my family. Important family relationships have been severed and a lot of really deep and irrevocable hurt has been caused. I wish I could see the blooms in this desert. They may not come for years. But, I haven’t let this desert cloud my judgement on my whole life like it did in college. I’m able to see that a lot of other really great things are happening for me to rejoice about.
This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. -Psalm 118:24
What gratitude is not: complaint, greed, desire for more, sorrow, depression, negativity. What it is: trust, thankfulness, rejoicing, choosing happiness despite your situation, appreciation, being happy with what you have rather than what you want.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” -John Milton
Another practice that has helped me to do this, also started at the women’s retreat, is keeping a gratitude journal. I don’t write in it every day, but when I think of it, at least a few times a month, I end my day by writing down the best moments of the day, or the things I am most grateful for in life right then. Sometimes I’ll make Drew do it with me and we’ll talk for a few minutes about our gratitudes. On bad days, it isn’t always easy to come up with a whole list of things you are grateful for. I often don’t feel like listing anything or taking any more time to reflect on the bad day I’ve had. But those good moments are there if you take the time to look for them (it helps immensely to change your attitude on your day!). I find prayer and simplicity are also helpful practices for gratitude. Choosing happiness (and not letting our emotions or situations define us) is a constant battle.
I love this quote by Sarah Ban Breathnach from her book, Simple Abundance, that I’ve been reading lately. I feel like it perfectly sums up why we need gratitude in our lives to really lead happy, joyful lives.
“There are six threads of abundant living which, when woven together, produce a tapestry of contentment that wraps us in inner peace, well-being, happiness, and a sense of security. First there is gratitude. When we do a mental and spiritual inventory of all that we have, we realize that we are very rich indeed. Gratitude gives way to simplicity–the desire to clear out, pare down, and realize the essentials of what we need to live truly well. Simplicity brings with it order, both internally and externally. A sense of order in our life brings us harmony. Harmony provides us with the inner peace we need to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us each day, and beauty opens us to joy.” -Sarah Ban Breathnach
Here’s to finding the joy in even the worst days.