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The Sacrifice of Gratitude

The Sacrifice of Gratitude

Fitzroy falls2

I am a terrified flyer. It is not a mental thing. It is a physical response, a tension that threatens to overwhelm me. I always flash back to a particular moment at an amusement park in my teenage years when my fear of heights became unbearable.  Barely able to breath, I found the strength to yell from the Ferris Wheel that I wanted off, saying the words until the concerned attendant stopped the ride and let me exit. I stood there watching my friends circle around. I knew I had been silly but could not convince myself to try again. The panic was unbearable. On the plane, I always have the same urge. Just as the wheels leave the ground, I fight the urge to scream out for them to stop and let me off. I don’t, only because I know it would not be received as gracefully.

I can sometimes experience this same terror in the darkness of the night. It is the terror of a person who internalizes the tragedies of the world and realizes exactly how little control she has. I will lay there and wildly wish there was a way to stop the entire earth from spinning so that I might get off and watch safely from the sidelines. Unlike the plane and the Ferris Wheel, I do not know where this ride of life is going and it is this thought that terrifies me. Perhaps you know how it is, to lie in bed and imagine all the horrors of the world? To think on your family and ISIS and gun violence and simple car crashes and realize how instantly, awfully, life can change?

I remember reading Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly and identifying so strongly with her assertion that we are all living in a sort of PTSD following 9-11, international struggles and the Great Recession. We have realized that we are vulnerable and we are deeply, deeply afraid of this. I felt as though she had diagnosed my fears so well and in giving them a name, she gave me a way to begin to understand them. (This Salon interview has a good summary.)

I was so relieved to find some insight that I shared this insight with my husband. He nodded but I could tell that he didn’t understand it, not really. He is one of those calmly rational people who simply chooses not to worry. (Or so he claims.) “What good does it do?” He shrugs and says, “You cannot change anything by worrying.” Such words of wisdom, echoed in my faith and others. Hearing him say this always strikes me as wise, just as reading it in scripture does but despite recognizing the wisdom, I struggle every day to act on it

Another psychological insight came my way years ago when I read that worry is sometimes an attempt to control a situation. I see the possibility in this idea. After all, if I worry about something, I make it my own. It is as though I have drawn these dark things to me and given them a place in my mind where I can keep them caged up rather than allowing them free reign in the world.

Of course, this doesn’t work. Any rational person sees this. Worry does not keep dreadful things from happening nor does it provide any real peace of mind. But old habits are hard to break. We all know that it is hard to simply get rid of worry and fear. It appears that we must learn instead to replace it with something else.

In her book Found: A Story of Questions, Grace and Everyday Prayer, Micha Boyett reflects on the practice of thanksgiving saying, “Maybe thankfulness is difficult because it’s a sacrifice. Every moment I break my mind from the present fear or tedious daily task or even from the feeling of joy and turn my thoughts into a thankful recognition of what God has done, I break down some fear-constructed wall.”

Perhaps this is my sacrifice too. To learn day by day how to relinquish control by relinquishing worry. To choose instead to experience gratitude. Perhaps regularly turning my head toward something—thanksgiving–rather than away from something—fear–will be a way I can live more fully into the life we are called to, a life that does not ignore the realities of our world but calls us to rise above them.

Maybe it is by leaning into these things, not away from them, we find our center.

Gratitude Jar: Prayer Project Week 2

Gratitude Jar: Prayer Project Week 2

Have you ever taken a walk and looked around, only to gasp with amazement at the beauty around you? You know, when you suddenly feel a little disoriented because you’re sure that you have walked right into someone’s watercolor painting, a stunning landscape of crisp golden grass against frosty earth? There’s that moment when you take a sudden, audible inhale and you’re filled with deep, deep wonder and thanksgiving that this land, this amazing ordinary always-here earth exists for you. It’s that feeling that suddenly put everything in perspective. The work waiting for you at home seems manageable, or matters less. The person you’ve been struggling to forgive suddenly seems forgivable. The deep hurts and petty disappointments shrink just a little.

I used to think these moments just happened.  I thought that all of the big feelings that spiritual teachers yammer on about were like magic.  Love, awe, gratitude…they just came and went and no one quite knew why.  I wanted to grab onto those moments and possess them because I never knew when it might happen again.

Then I realized that we can learn to be grateful.  I even learned that we should learn to be grateful.  When we cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” all sorts of good things happen to us.  We’re happier and healthier.  We feel a stronger connection to others and we’re more compassionate.  We’re less likely to become depressed.  All in all, gratitude is the magic elixir for a better, longer life.  The good news is that we learn to be grateful just by practicing it.  That’s it.  We say thank you, even when we don’t quite mean it (yet).  We make time during the day to notice one thing–just one–for which we can express appreciation.  We begin our prayers by sharing with God something that just made us smile that day.

Teaching gratitude is high on my list of “to-dos for successful parenting,” but for obvious reasons, it’s really hard.  How do you teach something that’s so ephemeral that perfectly rational adults compare it to magic?  For 2015, my approach is this gratitude jar:

Finished gratitude bucket2

The idea is simple.  Each day, we’ll write down something that we’re grateful for and drop the paper into the container.  Since gratitude is a hard concept and big word, be prepared to explain it to your kids.  I’ve found it works well to describe gratitude as “something you’re happy about” or “something you liked” that day.  That’s it.  Easy, right?

I think kids get on board with something when they have a hand in creating it, so I made the creation of our gratitude jar a family project.  I didn’t have a good container on hand so I emptied this cornmeal into a mason jar in my pantry, then used the cornmeal container.

Cornmeal container

Anything you can glue paper to is fine.  Thanks to our local library’s “free magazine” corner, I had a stack of magazines ready for cutting.  I explained to my daughter that we’d be decorating our container with a collage of things we’re grateful for.  I had to explain “grateful,” and I had to be the first to cut out a picture while she watched hesitantly.  My first picture was a pair of shoes.  “I’m cutting out these shoes because I’m grateful for shoes.  Without them, my feet would be really cold!”  I said this in the exact tone of voice that one of the Wiggles might say it so I felt like a faker and an idiot but it worked.  My daughter added, “And they’d also hurt!”  After that, she was off and running on the collage project.  Cats, rocks and lots of yummy fruits made it onto her container.  As we finished our collage, she said, “I’m out of room and there’s still so much things I want to add!”  My heart melted and I knew my Wiggles act was completely worth it.

A couple lessons:

  • It might be good to cover your container with a base layer of plain paper before you start gluing the pictures.  That way you won’t have to worry about leaving a section of “nutrition information” or brand name showing through and ruining your collage.  I’d do this part ahead of time and let it dry before you start gluing with the kids.
  • With more than two kids, it gets a little crowded for everyone to work on the container.  Measure the container ahead of time and cut a piece of paper to fit around it.  Don’t glue it on yet.  Instead, have everyone collage on the paper.  When the collage is done and dry, glue the finished project to the container.
  • If you’re out of glue, mix flour and water to a thick consistency and use that instead.  Using a paintbrush to apply the glue was fun and I got major mom points–“you know how to MAKE GLUE!?”

I’m putting our gratitude jar on the dinner table for a while, at least until we get in the habit of using it daily.  I think it will be our dinner time ritual.  My big plan is to read the papers on New Year’s Eve this year.

Until next time, go barefoot.