How to Really Be Grateful
Rain falls outside--thin, clear confetti on a thirsty earth. The plainest dirt ever known to man is transformed into a hundred mirrors, reflecting the gray sky, the shifting trees, and the dying light of the day. I am standing in it, experiencing the inconvenient drops of water, small but many, determined to change my dry clothes into clinging, wet versions of what they used to be. Right in this moment, I am thankful for the rain.
In a sadly uncivilized, selfish sort of way, I’m not thankful for rain because of what it does for me: nourishing the earth, producing green things to eat, providing water for a multitude of uses in my daily life. When the rain falls, I don’t run outside, splashing in the ecstasy of a break in the California drought, glorying in how nice it will be for the neighbors who are crazy enough to still have grass.
No; I feel thankful for rain because it transforms the landscape into vivid gray, green, and brown, all lovelier than they will ever be under any garishly bright sun. I am thankful for rain because it beckons intimacy, snuggles, and hot tea. I am thankful for rain because, as many have noted before me, it never pauses to wonder if it is inconveniencing anybody, but falls on wedding days and funerals, on children in galoshes and elderly people with aching bones, on paper which we very much want to stay dry and on raincoats which we very much don’t mind getting wet.
I am thankful for rain on a visceral, romantic level that defies logic. My gratitude refuses to be intellectualized with nonsense about needing the water and rain being good for the environment. And it is in this very division of feeling and logic that actual gratitude wells up from deep inside of us.
Gratitude can, I suppose, issue from the mind and slowly trickle down into the heart. But when gratitude starts in our hearts and not our heads, then we truly feel gratitude--not the forced kind, the guilty kind, or the first-world kind: real human gratitude for things both large and small, from astronauts to the moon to a piece of chocolate to pens. My gratitude for the rain reminds me that I don’t want to force my gratitude by telling myself what I should be grateful for. Instead, I want to--I want all of us to--encourage this robust, vibrant, real feeling of gratitude in my heart. Here are four ways we can begin to sow gratitude in our lives:
Surely an invitation to lower your expectations is the most thankless sentence to write in an essay about gratitude. But it’s true. I’m discovering that my expectations continually interfere with my ability to feel grateful.
When I was younger, my grandparents came over for a carefully timed, two-hour visit every Sunday. They always brought vanilla ice cream. Grandma ate a teeny, tiny scoop with a spoon, daintily. Then they left, patting our heads and promising to see us next week. Ice cream never tasted so dull. I never remember feeling the least bit excited about eating ice cream on Sundays and I blame the fact that I expected it. It had none of the delight of the unexpected--maybe even undeserved--treat. It was the most routine way to eat ice cream, and I highly advise against it. Ice cream should be eaten with as little planning as possible, preferably straight from the carton with a spoon in ecstasy at the delight that something as rich, creamy, and sugary even exists for our pleasure. Expected ice cream creates entitlement: “I always get ice cream; it’s my right.” Unexpected ice cream begets gratitude.
Break up your heart from your head.
I cannot reason my way into feeling grateful. More often than not, my mind is better at reminding me of all the things that aren’t going well. If you are blessed with a head similar to mine, you understand this. My head is a control freak; she is constantly on high alert, assessing past, present, and future for anything that might hurt my heart. She wants to keep me safe, she wants to manage this crazy life for me, she wants to know everything--how it will all end, what will happen next, what are all the answers to all the questions. As long as my heart patiently holds hands with my head, we all live together in a state of perfect anxiety.
When my heart tells my head that we are just friends, nothing more, there is an eerie space that suddenly appears and it is in this space that I begin to live and experience the world around me. There is room for my heart to skip a beat when my husband winks at me, room for the exquisite taste of a strawberry--the tang, the sweetness, the crisp juiciness--there is even room for grumpiness. This is where gratitude begins to develop: not in our heads, but in our hearts. With room between the two, we can feel all of our feelings, especially gratitude, because we are not obsessing over worst-case scenarios, hypothetical insults, and guilt-induced “should”-ing. In that delightfully blank space, gratitude develops for what everyone likes to call “the simple things” and what is actually just life itself.
I define acceptance as letting go of the way you think life should be and accepting what life actually is. I struggle to accept many things, but most recently I’ve struggled to accept the fact that I can’t control most things. This particular acceptance is uniquely challenging because it means letting go of my desire to hold on. It’s like trying to direct Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, an animal with two heads facing opposite directions.
However impossible it seems, I’m learning that if I humble myself long enough to accept exactly what God has given me in my daily life, my perspective changes. I begin to see that God owes me nothing (least of all a fulfillment of my life exactly as I want it) yet he has given me everything I need: abiding love, redemption from the mess, hope, and never-ending grace. Acceptance is another important shift from the head to the heart; instead of allowing your mind to dwell on how you think things should be, you allow your heart to live with what actually is. Once you have stopped demanding ice cream, in other words, you can begin to feel thankful for the cookie you’ve been offered.
Pay attention to your feelings.
This time of year, when everyone is talking about being thankful and I start to feel thankless, I often sit down and write a gratitude list in my journal. It usually sounds something like this: “pumpkin lattes, pumpkin candles, pumpkin pie, pumpkins as well I guess, running water, that I’m still alive.”
A more proper title for the list might be: Things I Like and Things I Feel Guilty for Taking for Granted. I know I ought to be grateful for running water. It’s a modern miracle that I take for granted every day. I know I ought to be grateful to be alive. How often do I thank God for the breath in my body? Not often enough, I’m sure. But as much as I wish I felt grateful for these things, I don’t--at least not right in that moment, sitting with a pen and an ominously blank list of things I’m grateful for. The trouble is everything on my gratitude list comes from my head, not my heart, and intellectual gratitude, rather guilt-induced or not, is merely a pale shadow of actually feeling grateful.
Instead of trying to list everything I think I ought to feel grateful for, I’m learning to spend time paying attention to my emotions, looking for the feeling of gratitude. If you pay attention, you might be surprised to discover how often you feel grateful. The feeling of gratitude catches us all at odd moments during our day.
I drink coffee every single morning, but this morning, I held my warm mug in my hands and breathed in deeply. The smell of scorched earth and roasted caramel seeped straight to my heart and I felt so thankful for coffee--deep in my soul grateful. If I’d been asked to make a list, of course I would have noted my gratitude for coffee; but writing it down is not the same thing as feeling it. Similarly, not a day goes by that I don’t look deep into my daughter’s eyes and feel all the feelings - but one of the most prominent feelings is gratitude that she is in my life. Paying attention to those moments does more for my heart than all of the intellectual lists I could ever write about why I’m thankful for her.
My friend, here is the “root of the root and the bud of the bud”: you don’t need to fabricate a grateful heart, you already have one. You just need to listen to it and make space for it. This Thanksgiving, I hope gratitude catches you by surprise; I hope you find it in turkey and shouting kids, and those less-approachable, bite-your-tongue relatives; I hope you find it in a hug (really) and in a glass of wine as beautiful as it is delicious. I hope it shocks and delights you when you discover you don’t have to force a long list of things you’re grateful for--you just need to make room for the gratefulness that’s already there, waiting for your eager attention.