On Gratitude

Maybe you remember that my Lenten practice this year was gratitude. I said that I was, in a sense, giving up negativity. If you don’t remember that, maybe now you’re understanding why my post for the last six weeks have been underwhelming. So now that Lent is over, I thought I would take a minute to process through my experience.

When I started out, I immediately noticed a lift in my mood. That’s the power of positive thinking. That’s what I’ve experienced all of the previous times that I’ve practiced daily gratitude. And it was great for awhile, but (as I mentioned a few days ago) things got really lonely around here after my parents’ visit. I think I had gotten used to feeling lonely and isolated, inured to it so that I didn’t notice. I think I was so happy while my parents were here that I couldn’t just slide back into that (semi)oblivion. So the last bit of Lent was rough. It helped some to think about the things that I was grateful for every day, but I couldn’t really muster up enough gratitude to stave off the slow crush of loneliness that seemed always to descend in particular force with the evening darkness.

In what I assume is a related phenomenon, I also found myself struggling with fear. I makes sense to me that feeling isolated and lonely can lead to feeling vulnerable, and I’ve tended to be a little spooky at night for as long as I can remember. So I had quite a few sleepless nights, laying awake, jumping at every sound, every creak and pop (and let me tell you, folks, this house makes a lot of sounds. I hadn’t noticed that before). After about of week of this, I was exhausted and frustrated with myself for being so irrational.

And then things got worse. I was sitting in my living room one night a week after my parents left when Spur and I heard someone run past my house, close enough to brush the hedges in front of my window. Most likely, it was just a neighbor chasing their dog or something like that, but it’s never happened before, and it was enough to get me all worked up. Then, just as I was finally settling back down and thinking about going to bed (around midnight), the house popped in a way that sounded to me like someone trying to open the back door. Commence: full panic. I was shaking all over. I can only remember being that afraid a few times in my life. I was shaken up for several days.

So, the past few weeks have been kind of a minor emotional crisis for me. And as I was struggling with that, I was trying to think of things that I was grateful for everyday. And most of the things that I thought about and most of the things that I wrote about seemed small and silly. It was a hollow sort of gratitude.

But at the same time, something else was happening. I started praying in a genuine and focused way. I haven’t been in the habit of serious prayer in a while. Too long, for sure. But being single, living alone and far away from my support systems, I had nowhere else to turn. Because, at least in the short run, I am helpless to change my situation. I can’t decide not to feel lonely. I can’t make a support system spring up overnight. I can’t move back to Texas or Boston. So I turned to God with a sort of desperate abandon, mostly just asking for Him to show up, to take care of me, to hold me together. And He started pouring blessings into my life. Not anything big, no grand gestures. Mostly reminding me of the truths that give meaning to my life and teaching me new things.

And one of the things that He’s taught me, or is teaching me still, is about gratitude. You see, I realized a few days into the new routine of prayer and meditation and reading scripture that feeling isolated and lonely (often) and afraid (at times) is hard, but even so I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for the way that this experience is causing me to reestablish spiritual practices and disciplines that restore my life and give me strength. I’m grateful for the ways that God has reminded me of who He is in my life, and who I am. And one day, as I meditated, I realized that I was grateful to be here in Atlanta, and that was the first time I could genuinely say that.

But here’s the thing. It’s not the kind of gratitude I’m used to. It isn’t really a happy gratitude. “Glad” is not the word for it. It’s a grim sort of gratitude. I am solemnly grateful. I’m more likely to cry than laugh, more likely to grit my teeth than smile. It’s the kind of gratitude that shows up in Psalms, when the psalmist seems to toggle back and forth between lament and praise. That always seemed inconsistent to me before. I wasn’t sure how someone could experience such opposite emotional registers at the same time, and it seemed to me that the writer was tacking on the praise, the gratitude, as a poetic afterthought. Now I think I had it wrong. I thought gratitude was bound up with happiness, that it was fixed on that end of the emotional spectrum. But it isn’t. Gratitude, it turns out, is mobile, sliding along that spectrum, ready to add mirth to your joy or to give strength in your sadness. I know that one of these days, I’ll shift back to feeling happy most of the time. It won’t be today, probably not tomorrow either–although I’m much better off this week than last, thank God. But in the mean time, I’ll be grateful.

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2 thoughts on “On Gratitude

  1. One problem I’ve always had with Pollyanna is that her gratitude didn’t seem substantial enough. Comparative gratitude seems like a miserly thing– “Well, at least my life doesn’t suck as bad as yours!” But true gratitude acknowledges that things are difficult while appreciating what genuine good exists, even if it’s just hope for the future. Loved reading your thoughts. Beautifully said.

  2. You and your beautiful thoughts and writings are a blessing to me!

    After church today, I had lunch alone. I bowed my head and prayed over my food. When I finished my prayer, I realized that every sentence in my longer-than-usual prayer began with “thank you!” It’s a good day!

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