This month I’ve found myself thinking about gratitude and what it really means. Gratitude can’t exist in isolation as it is something one can experience and express. In order to practice or experience gratitude, one has to be on the receiving end of something: a blessing in your life, a gift from a loved one, kindness from a stranger.
It’s been challenging for me to consistently dedicate my attention to the practice of gratitude these days, and it’s not hard for me to understand why that’s been the case. See: perpetuated violence and oppression toward black and brown people, the election, COVID (this list is certainly not exhaustive). This past year has been a reckoning in a multitude of ways, and it makes me wonder: what needs to be true for us to practice gratitude?
I think of a lyric from the great 50 Cent, “Sunny days wouldn’t be special if it wasn’t for rain. Joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain.” So I wonder if we need to know pain or sorrow in order to practice gratitude. How do we know what to be grateful for if we don’t know what’s on the opposite end, or what else is possible?
I also think about what it looks like to practice gratitude, to give and receive thanks, especially during a time when there is such an unwelcome strain on our relationships. As the holiday season nears, I think back to the joy and closeness that my family and I shared during Thanksgiving when I was growing up. Every year, my aunt, uncle, and four cousins would pour out of their car and into our home, filling it with so much warmth. I grew up in a place where I, as a multiracial person, didn’t often see myself reflected in the world around me. At the time I didn’t realize how much it meant to me, not only to spend time alongside loved ones who looked like me, but also to simply be surrounded by joy, laughter, and love.
The mourning of lost loved ones, along with some classic family drama, led to a proverbial family break-up that long preceded COVID-19. For the past several years, we’ve celebrated the holidays with only our immediate family of four. The joy, laughter, and love is still there, and yet I feel a sense of grief for the days of my childhood when things were just simpler. In that grief is also immense gratitude for the beautiful memories I still hang onto and revisit, especially at this time of year.
This year, I’m grateful for our family of four in that, with proper precautions, we aren’t facing the challenge of not being able to share physical space with our loved ones because it simply isn’t safe. Within that gratitude is the knowledge and sadness that this is not the case for so many people, families, and friends across the world.
So what can gratitude look like when we’re facing such uncontrollable isolation? How can we “do better” and “be better” in exercising greater compassion and practicing gratitude on a greater scale, for ourselves and for others? Here are some thoughts and suggestions:
Take a moment to slow down each day and name three things you’re grateful for.
Establish gratitude rituals: Set aside time each week/month to call a loved one. Even if they don’t answer, leave them a message sharing why you’re grateful for them. Express gratitude before family meals
Practice self-friendship. Be kind to yourself. Take a moment to hear the messages you’re sending yourself, and talk to yourself as though you were talking to your best friend