The season of nostalgia is upon us. With the winter holidays come images of warm communal gatherings, extended families and lifelong friendships that call us together from across great distances, so that we can be in the company of one another. It’s a deeply felt yearning, this desire for home, where we are understood and where affection and mutual gratitude flow.
Reality doesn’t always look like that. We don’t all have a toasty hearth to return to.
Nonetheless, gratitude is something we long to feel in November and December: appreciation for our friends and relatives, our health, our gifts, our cats, the seacoast and the scent of cinnamon, and the odd mix of people who have been put in our path. We want the feeling of gratitude to be evoked naturally, by a deep sense of contentment.
What then, in challenging times, in the presence of disappointing relationships, financial anxiety, depression, and the lack of a beckoning hearth to call us home? Can we bring ourselves to a place of authentic gratitude anyhow?
A lot of us have a conviction that we “should” feel gratitude. But holding this viewpoint and actually experiencing gratitude are quite different, are they not? What’s been your experience when you have dutifully made a list of things to be grateful for? My sense is that we cannot will ourselves into gratitude; that feels shallow, medicinal, and somehow soulless.
But we can prepare. We can tweak our inner landscape, allowing the possibility of being warmed by the unexpected, or of noticing anomalies that are easily overlooked in our darker moments. In suspending our negative expectations, we make a place where gratitude can find us.
The produce section at Whole Foods, as it turns out, can be a place of transformation. The other day a stranger, also shopping, invited me to try a sample of an ominous looking green beverage made of wheatgrass, assuring me that it would be pleasant. (She was right.) Her spontaneous kindness evoked my gratitude.
Stress, in its many flavors, tends to narrow our focus, leading us to attend only to the source of our trouble. Sometimes we are blocked from experiencing gratitude, because we assume it requires us to minimize our hurt, frustration or anger. It does not. You can be mindful of the mean, insensitive thing your uncle said, or the exasperation of dealing with tech support, and also make space for unexpected grace. Have you ever asked tech support how the weather is in her city? Small humanizing moments, when we feel overwhelmed and invisible, can evoke feelings of gratitude.
The archetypal images of yin and yang, the polar opposite forces of the universe, are of two entwined shapes, black and white, each containing a dot of the opposite color. A possible resonance: even adversarial relationships may contain a hidden gift. A recent post on the blog Tiny Buddha called “50 Ways to Show Gratitude,” offers examples of benevolent responses to people who drive us crazy. Pinpoint something you admire about their conviction, it suggests. Or introduce them to someone who may help them grow, as they have helped you. (Me: Insert emoticon for ironic laughter here.) Our search within for a benevolent response is a way of acknowledging underlying gratitude — not necessarily the warm fuzzy kind, but the kind that appreciates a life lesson. Every relationship has something to teach us, points out Lori Deschene, the author of the post.
Willingness for gratitude, then, can become a way to not waste whatever experiences may come. Disappointment in love can bring self awareness that perhaps would not have arisen another way. This is not to minimize hurt or grief, but to appreciate the potential for something good and useful to redeem even a terrible moment, if we are willing.
Gratitude is not limited to people who cultivate superficial faith or optimism; in fact, its deepest expression may belong to people who know suffering and the precariousness of our lives, and savor the moment anyhow.
In the hollow place of our distress, paradoxically, we may find a hint about what we did not know we seek. In preparing our hearts for something new to happen, gratitude can be the uninvited guest.