It’s easy to promote gratitude when things are going well, or even when we’re in the midst of a time-limited, end-eventually-in-sight situation such as my “coach ride from Hell.” (See the blog archives for the full series.)
But what about gratitude when we’re really in the shit? A reader sent this comment a few weeks ago:
Wish I could experience those feelings of gratitude. I know they are out there but pale in comparison to the feelings of fear when dealing with a loved one fighting for her life. We are grateful for the doctors, her family and friends, but Jimmy’s wife is fighting for her life after being diagnosed with leukemia and undergoing a bone marrow transplant. Jimmy is trying to do his job (for which we are thankful) take care of Meredith, get settled into a new home, and try to figure out who is going to pay for all this medical care after her employer screwed up. Sorry to be such a downer. Trying to find the gratitude.
My answer to this comment was that finding gratitude in the midst of this awful pain was possible and would be helpful to this reader and her family. There are always the quotidian blessings of being alive – sun and stars and birds, etc. I think that’s true, but my response felt inadequate, and maybe a little disrespectful.
I asked fellow Martha Beck-trained coaches how they practice gratitude in the heart of darkness. They had lots to say. Here are some suggestions:
- A quick five-things-I’m-grateful-for list: soap, warm water, my body, NPR, a house…
- A gratitude jar, filled with slips of paper and other mementos of gratitude. (A gratitude journal would also be a tangible reminder of gratitudes.)
- A gratitude posse: a group of people who e-mail or text each other their gratitudes daily, with accountability if someone drops off the radar.
- Asking the question “What’s perfect about this?” (This is probably a stretch for most of us. If you’re feeling brave, give it a try!)
They emphasized the importance of feeling the fear, anger, and sadness before going for gratitude. Otherwise the gratitude is just pretense, papering over of a part of ourselves that needs attention. They also affirmed the helpfulness of a consistent meditation practice, healthy eating, and exercise. These habits give us somewhere to stand when the ground shakes.
There’s often a part of us that feels disloyal when we practice gratitude and acceptance in the midst of deep pain. We equate love with resistance. I think, looking back on my mom’s terminal dance with cancer that killed her way too young, or my dad’s skiing accident that killed him way too young, that if I had practiced acceptance and gratitude around those events I would have thought that meant I condoned her suffering, his snuffed-out life, and my terrible loss. Resisting reality felt like love and loyalty. Resisting felt like I was still in control.
I now understand that resistance of something we can’t do anything about isn’t love. Acceptance is the necessary ground for gratitude, and both together bring us to a place where grace and healing can happen, whatever that looks like. And that’s love.