Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree. As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.
As I was adrift in memories, I realized something. Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.
It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations. You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe. Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often. Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.
For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me. My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital. When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.
It’s not our fault. Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc. Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.
But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity. It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much. They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.
Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life. My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful. He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping. He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.
Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis. So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training. In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.