Gratitude, Grace, and Grief, part 1

Thanksgiving Day is coming. The occasion is entangled with a romanticized story of European Puritans and the Wampanoag people in 1621 -- precisely 400 years ago now. I’m going to come back to that, but first let’s talk about this thanksgiving -- the practice of giving thanks.

Thanksgiving Day is coming up -- Thu Nov 25. So that’s great: getting together with family or friends or both – and overeating! OK, I know that it can be fraught. Even before covid, many of us found the occasion fraught with risk of getting into unpleasant political arguments -- or dealing with that cousin who would drink too much. Under Covid conditions, a lot people aren’t gathering – and deciding not to might make sparks fly. So, as I said: fraught. I don’t know your family, so I’m not going to give any advice about how to handle them. I’ll just say, it IS difficult, and whatever you’re doing, it’s great, given how difficult things are.

What I do want to say is Thanksgiving is not a special time to be grateful – as if you didn’t need to be any other time. Thanksgiving is a time for a reminder – if we needed a reminder – to be grateful all the time. Every day. Three hundred sixty-five and one-quarter days a year.

Studies confirm how helpful it is to jot down, every day, 3-5 things that you’re grateful for. Gratitude is associated with greater well-being, better coping, and better sleep.

It’s OK if your gratitude list is repetitive, day after day. On my daily lists, “air” comes up a lot. I’m grateful for air. Or I’ll say “breathing” because I’m grateful to be taking in air, and giving it back, with a slightly higher concentration of carbon dioxide and some of my body’s moisture. It is so great to breathe – the feeling of the inhale and the exhale. There’s no need to be original – feel free to steal that one for your list for as many days as you feel like it.

During certain seasons of the year, chipmunks will be on my daily list almost every day. Such delightful and interesting little critters, they are! That’s OK if I’m repeating myself a lot. It’s also OK if I feel like pushing myself just a little bit to think of something different. My mind might go: “OK, ‘blue jays’ instead of ‘chipmunks.’”

But do mean it. That’s why actually writing the list works better than speaking it, or just thinking it. Writing is a little slower, and in the extra time it takes to write “blue jays,” I can feel my way into an appreciation and gladness that blue jays are in the world, and in my world.

Gratitude is how we notice and appreciate grace. Grace is the goodness that you did not earn – that you do not deserve: like air, and chipmunks.

Or friends or lovers, right? They’re a grace, aren’t they? If they’re only hanging around because you earned them, then aren’t really true friends, are they?

To practice gratitude, do not wait for something special to be grateful for to fall into your lap. Be grateful for all the ordinary, pedestrian wonders that are continually falling into your lap. The sun came up. Thank you. If it’s sunny, be grateful it’s sunny. If it’s rainy, be grateful it’s raining. As David Stendl-Rast says,
"It's not being happy that makes us grateful. It's being grateful that makes us happy."
Gratitude does not mean ignoring difficulties, losses, or injustice. It just means also paying attention to the grace that’s all around you, that you are submerged in – the grace within which you live and move and have your being.

When you do this, you are resting your mind on the fullness of life -- on the sense of having an open heart that moves toward an open hand. Gratitude is receptive. Grace does the giving; you only need to do the receiving. Open and receiving, taking in, appreciating what grace provides.
"When we are receptive we are open, aware, awake and actively receiving what life has to offer us. We are in flow, we are in balance. We are both open and focused, surrendered and engaged." (standinbalance.com/receptivity)
When we are grounded in openly receiving, we naturally feel we have more of value inside ourselves and more to offer to others.

Remember that gratitude is not guilt or indebtedness -- both of which actually make it harder to feel grateful. You may feel moved to be generous in turn -- including in new directions, such as giving to some out of appreciation for what you have been given by others -- but it will come from large-heartedness, not because you think you owe something.

Gratitude lifts us up out of market mind. Yes, there’s a big part of life where we need market thinking. We need to think about ensuring we’re not paying too much for what we’re getting, and that we are paid enough for what we’re giving. Market mind keeps score – using dollars as points – and monitors the fairness of exchanges. It is helpful and necessary – but we wouldn’t want to live in market mind all the time.

Gratitude takes us out of market mind. Where market mind is focused on scarcity, gratitude brings awareness of abundance. You are fed beyond measure – perhaps literally so at Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, when you are in gratitude, rather than market mind, you appreciate how your needs are supplied in great abundance. And this allows you to, in turn, give with all your heart without keeping score.

Gratitude is such a powerful orientation toward well-being and joy that perhaps the thing to most be grateful for is that we are beings capable of gratitude. We are capable of appreciating every moment. Even if don’t appreciate everything IN every moment, we can appreciate every moment.
"You can’t be grateful for war in a given situation, or violence, or sickness, things like that. So the key, when people ask, 'Can you be grateful for everything?' — no, not for everything, but in every moment." (David Stendl-Rast)
So gratitude FOR gratitude itself is indeed appropriate.

Gratitude doesn’t mean putting a smiley face on everything. In fact, I want to talk some about the particular inter-relationship between gratitude and grief. This relationship goes in both directions. The work of grieving leads us, finally, out of the pain of loss and into a gratitude for what was. Going the other direction, gratitude for the beauty, health, and security that we have is also tinged with grief as we remember that all these things shall pass.

To see how grief points to gratitude, we need to review how grief works and how grief work works. We need to grieve. Grieving is a need. Grief is not just this unfortunate thing that happens to you, willy nilly (will-ye or nil-ye). Lots of unfortunate things do happen to you, will-ye or nil-ye, but you might or might not grieve them as much and as intentionally as would be good for you.

There’s grieving to be done whenever there’s a big change in your life – because big change means a big loss of what was before the change. We grieve when a family member, or friend, dies, when a relationship ends, when we move to another town, when a pet dies, when a loved one faces significant injury or illness, when a major possibility you were really hoping to realize becomes closed to us.

Through the grieving process we come to reclaim the energy that has been bound to the person, object, or experience now lost. We are then able to re-invest that energy elsewhere. Without effectively grieving, a part of us remains tied to the past. As long as part of us remains tied that way, reinvesting in the new world in which we find ourselves can’t happen.

Grieving, of course, is not forgetting. It’s the working of our way to remembering with peace rather than with pain. The memory of loss will always be tinged with blue, but the memory can come, through the grieving process, to be infused with gratitude for the wonderful gift of what was – rather than with anger, recriminations, or regret for the loss.

That’s the first connection between grief and gratitude: that the grief process is a process of arriving at gratitude for what was as the predominate tone of the memory. Much of the process of healthy grieving is built into us, and will unfold without our direction. But there is a level of intentionality to bring to the process. There’s intentional work to be done. There are tasks to do, and doing them more or less consciously facilitates the re-emergence of wholeness from the broken-ness of loss.

The tasks include, in any order:
  • To accept the finality of the loss;
  • To acknowledge and express the full range of feelings we experience as a result of the loss;
  • To adjust to a life in which the lost person, object, or experience is absent;
  • To say good-bye, to ritualize our movement to a new peace with the loss.
  • And to do all the above with balance: balancing time spent on grief work with coping with day-to-day life; balancing time spent with others with time spent alone.
There’s a lot more to be said about how to healthily grieve, how best to negotiate grieving. Today, I just want to say enough to convey that being intentional about proper grieving brings us through the pain and into gratitude. Grief points to gratitude.

In part 2, we'll look at how gratitude points to grief.

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