Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A Month of Thankfulness

I was reminded last week that we have a chance to choose our attitude every morning before our feet hit the floor.  That reminded me of a book called Simple Abundance by the author Sarah Ban Breathnach.  I first heard of her and her book via the Oprah Show.  Oprah and Sarah introduced me to something that helped me immeasurably 13 years ago -- the concept of keeping a gratitude journal.

In 1998, my mother was suffering multiple health complications and slowly dying from cancer.  I was taking care of her in our family home.  Knowing that we were inevitably going to lose this remarkable, loving woman created a soul-deep sadness.  I wouldn't let it show in front of her, but I couldn't banish it either.  On top of that, there were nights when I was just so tired from the doctors' appointments, the medications, the shopping, cooking and laundry.  I could feel my strength ebbing at a time when I needed it most.  When Mom most needed me to be strong. 

That Oprah show talked about the practice of keeping a gratitude journal and every day writing down five things for which I was grateful.  Doing so, they said, would cultivate an attitude of gratitude and help in even dark times.

These times were pretty damned dark, but I chose to embrace the idea and give it a shot.  Every night, I searched my thoughts and my heart for five things that I was thankful about.  Some nights it was easy.  Mom enjoyed a short walk on a sunny day.  A friend left homemade soup for us to eat that evening.  My brother and his family came down for a visit.  You get the idea.  There are days when reasons to be grateful are abundant and we can pick them up like pretty flowers in a garden bursting with blooms.

There were also nights when it simply seemed that everything had gone wrong.  Mom had a fever.  The dog snuck the filets I planned to grill off the counter.  I twisted my ankle.  I forgot to put the just-washed clothes and bedding in the dryer.    On those nights, I really just wanted to crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head and cry.

Instead, I pulled out the journal and searched for five things.  Did I mention that each night, they had to be different?  No cheating and flipping back to a previous page to repeat items from another day's list.  When you're finding five new things a day, you're not always going to set new records for being profound.   Some nights I wrote down things as simple as, "I'm grateful I breathed fresh air.  I'm grateful the car started.  I'm grateful Mom likes grilled cheese sandwiches.  I'm grateful that funny show was on tv.  I'm grateful I took a nap when Mom did."  Quantity often won out over quality.

Turns out it didn't matter.  This wasn't a contest.  I didn't need to have big, wonderful things happen every day.  Grand or basic, I only needed to be aware that something, anything, took place that was positive.  Or, I could dig deeper into the negative and find something positive anyway.   If there was no silver lining in the clouds, then I could appreciate the form and beauty of the clouds themselves.  Storms don't always create rainbows, but rain can wash out oppressive heat.

At a point when I was dangerously close to being completely overwhelmed and almost caved into despair, nurturing the attitude of gratitude saved me.  It became the lifeline I could hold onto to steady myself and stay upright.  Repeating the exercise every night helped put my anxiety to rest so I could sleep better at night and wake up with positive energy.

I continued the practice for months, even after Mom died and it helped me cope.  Gradually, I fell out of the habit of nightly gratitude-naming, but when rocky times have hit me sporadically over the years, I often return to the technique and it helps all over again.

Later this month, we celebrate Thanksgiving in this country. A friend posted on Facebook the other day that she'd picked up the idea to celebrate thankfulness every day in November.   This made me think of the nightly gratitude journal and I wondered why I only turned to it in times of sadness or stress.  Why shouldn't I also cultivate a grateful attitude when life is good?

I've adopted the idea from my friend.  Every day on my Facebook page, I'm posting about something else that I'm thankful to have in my life. It's not that I'm only grateful for that thing on one day, just that I've chosen that day to share about something that touches me heart and soul.  When the month is over, I might stop posting daily to FB, but I plan to check in with myself and do my gratitude acknowledgements instead of letting the habit fall out of my life again.

Some other friends have picked up the idea, too.  It makes me smile to see what they're thankful for.

Join us, if you like.  The comments are open.


Robena Grant said...

This was interesting, Mary. I have a tiny book (watermarked from reading it nightly while soaking in a bubblebath) that I used after my divorce. It's Gratitude: Affirming the Good Things in Life, by Melody Beattie. I haven't read it in years but just found it on my bookshelf. : )

Thanks for the reminder.

KarenB said...

I'm going to try to do this all month on my blog. Today's is a silly gratitude. Having worn an elderly pair of underwear on a recent walk with the dog prompted me to be grateful for the invention of elastic. How much less comfortable clothes must have been without it!

Hope said...

What a lovely, lovely post. I'm grateful that you shared it with us. :D