Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Expressing Hope Through Gratitude

 A Season of Reflection and Gratitude

Very few--if any--would disagree that 2020 has been a particularly difficult year.  It’s not that we naively expect to live above challenges that come along, it’s just that this year has tested us as a society, as families, and as individuals, in unique ways.


I’m not one who embraces unfounded or artificial optimism nor am I a cynic or pessimist. If something’s wrong or amiss, I address it as it is, not as I wish it were.  My process is very simple:


  1. Acknowledge something is wrong.

  2. Analyze why it is wrong (or feels wrong).

  3. Consider options for action.

  4. Choose the most ideal course.

  5. Act with faith.

  6. Reevaluate and Repeat as needed.


This system has become so natural and spontaneous for me now that I hardly think about the steps consciously. Live in reality, act ideally--that’s the mode of living I prefer to embrace.


To be perfectly open about coming into this season of gratitude and of celebration, I have not yet been able to process all the difficult and chaotic events that have piled on, nor have I had the luxury of having these events stop completely; that’s not reality.  Perhaps this is a new type of normal and we will have to level up to meet the challenges for our own well-being.  I don’t know the answers.


So when we are told this time of year to “be grateful,” and it feels like business as usual, I can’t help the urge to push back a bit.  I’m afraid of embracing any sense of “pollyanna”-esk falseness. The bigger question I grapple with is:


How do we live in gratitude and hope when pain lingers, when difficulty is still unresolved or ongoing, when goals and expectations not only falter but may not be restore-able within our power to act?


This is not a new question.  It is a quintessential human conundrum.  When the Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, published The Divine Comedy in 1320 A.D., he not only acknowledged that life is fraught with pain, disappointment, and poor choices, but that those realities might even follow the weary traveler on their post-life journey--if they are not aware.  As the main protagonist of his epic poem, Dante is escorted by his historical mentor, the Classical era poet, Virgil, to the gates of the underworld.  There, he reads the grim warning posted at the entrance: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”  But remember the location of this signpost.  It signals to the traveler that they are standing--quite literally--at the very gates of Hell, and the final requisite to entering is to abandon hope.  To Dante, the abandonment of hope is the gateway of Hell.  If this is true, then we have to consider the opposite, too: to cling to hope is the rejection of Hell and all its attendant horrors. It is precisely hope that helps us steer clear of this miserable end.


Where there is hope, gratitude is nearby. Hope is given life through gratitude. Gratitude is the verbal and emotional rejection of Dante's gates of Hell.  


It is no wonder britannica.com recognizes The Divine Comedy as, “one of the world’s great works of literature.” In it, Dante captures truths about the nature of living as he explores the eternal effects of those truths upon us.  So, I’ll trust those wiser wanderers who’ve traveled life’s paths in advance of me.  I’ll listen to the wisdom of Dante and choose hope.  And I’ll express it through gratitude--especially in 2020.  There are so many people, including ourselves, who need hope.


Gratitude Is...


Gratitude is a feeling of thankfulness towards the world, or towards specific individuals, towards the situation in which we find ourselves, or toward ourselves. The person who feels and expresses gratitude is thankful for what they have.  Gratitude is ultimately a statement of hope for the future and peace in the present. There are infinite ways to express hope through gratitude and there are so many who need to hear it. Who needs your gratitude right now?


The Self-Date:  You need you!  Remember the self-date principle we discussed last week? Remember, planning time in your week to renew yourself?  For your next self-date, you don’t even need to leave your house.  Get a pen and paper. Write a list of what you like about yourself--your talents and virtues.  Note the difficult things you’ve learned to overcome. Outline what you’ve accomplished already. Celebrate your strength and progress. 


My husband, James, shared a quote with me just the other day that deepened my understanding of this principle.  It is attributed to the Greek philosopher Epicurus:


Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.


Record your success and acknowledge them to yourself. You need you.


The Gratitude Visit: Your loved ones and close friends need you!  Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, a practicing psychiatric counselor, writes:


We all have someone, whose unconditional support and help meant a lot to us. We feel as if we ‘owe’ our happiness and success to them. If you have such a person, he/she might be your friend, family, or a professional associate, meet them once or twice a month.


Initiate the plan, go and express your thankfulness one more time – let the person feel important. Exchange some good memories and offer your support. In most cases, gratitude visits bring a feeling of sanctity and positivity instantly.


Sincere, daily expressions of gratitude strengthen the bonds of our marriages, deepen the connection to our children, and reinforce valued friendships. Your loved ones need you.


The “I Love You Because…” Box: If you’re married, your spouse needs you. They chose you because they need you. I have to share with you one of my husband’s strengths: he knows how to express gratitude and he sometimes does it through gift-giving.  One gift in particular that stands out as a treasure to me is the “I Love You Because…” box he gave me a number of years ago on Valentine’s Day.  It was a simple red box with a faux-leather padded exterior and a black velveteen lining. Inside he had carefully cut and folded 100 pieces of vellum.  On each piece, he had written one positive attribute about me--that I brought to our marriage or to our family--that he loved.  This inexpensive gift of gratitude for my life has remained one of the most priceless treasures of our 25-year marriage.  I believe his openness to expressing gratitude has helped bind our marriage together over the years. Interestingly enough, I think that his love for me grew while making the gift precisely because of the time he spent thinking about and recording the uplifting and positive contributions he saw me making. It blessed us both. Your spouse needs you.


Guileless expressions of gratitude for loved ones deepen our connection to them, gives us more patience on their behalf, and endears them to us through love, not compulsion or obligation.


The Unexpected Compliment: Even perfect strangers need you.  A few weeks ago I was fumbling through my purse to dig out my mask before going into a store to get a few groceries.  As I walked toward the entrance, a woman walking in the opposite direction called out, “I love your bag!” The encounter was so brief in passing that I had to project out a loud “Thank you!” as she walked away.  Every time I look at that bag or walk through that same parking lot, I think of her selfless compliment. It still sticks with me.  


Do you thank your cashier? The person who takes your order when eating out or refills your glass? The person who changes your oil?  To express gratitude by paying a simple compliment to those we don’t know, or to thank those who serve our needs--even if we pay them to--increases our feelings of unity with not only our community at home but with humanity at large. Strangers need you, too. 


Use Gratitude to Reduce Feelings of Anxiety and Discouragement


In studies related to the health of the brain, research is beginning to uncover the reality that the practice of gratitude helps reduce feelings of anxiety and of discouragement.  Who could use less of those menacing feelings? In an article about “The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief,” written by Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury and published online at PositivePsychology.com, we learn a lot about the cause and effects of unchecked anxiety:


Anxiety is our body’s inbuilt wake-up call that alerts us against danger. When fear sets in, our body releases hormones that create the fight or flight responses, and we react likewise. The brain doesn’t get much time to analyze the right or wrong when the adrenaline rush begins. The worst upshot of anxiety is that it makes us feel insecure, and we start questioning our inner strengths. Eventually, coping mechanisms start failing.


Repeated patterns of anxiety response lead us to develop patterns of negativity in our thinking that reinforce feelings of inferiority and of powerlessness.  This weakened mental and emotional state may even make us more vulnerable to addictions and a myriad of unhealthy responses. As a counterweight to feelings of anxiety, the author recommends the simple practice of gratitude.  Chowdhury says:


By consciously practicing gratitude, we can train the brain to attend selectively to positive emotions and thoughts, thus reducing anxiety and feelings of apprehension.

 

The beginning of emotional health really is that simple! The truth is, if we waited for enough time to process all our pain, or for perfect clarity and understanding to distill upon us, or for conditions to favor our needs, we would remain stuck forever.  And so we begin to understand that we can learn patterns of thinking and acting that help us temper our disappointment and our loss through hope, our anxiety and our distress through gratitude. 



The Gratitude Checkup


Psychologists Mitchel Adler and Nancy Fagley developed a gratitude quiz to help you evaluate where you stand on the gratitude scale and then share some techniques to become more self-aware in this area.  The quiz comes from the greater good website at the University of California at Berkeley. When you're done, you'll get your gratitude score, learn more about the benefits of gratitude, and find resources for cultivating more gratitude in your life.  It only takes about 1 minute to answer and provides an analysis right away.


Please know that your responses will remain anonymous and will not be shared with any other groups.  


Click Here to Take the Quiz

Link will take you to a different site


What Can I Do To Develop Better Gratitude Habits?


Here are a few takeaways to help get you thinking about not only how often you can express gratitude but what can be done to increase it:



In this season of thanksgiving, I hope you, too, will find the courage to experience hope through the expression of gratitude.  It’s within all of our reach whatever the conditions we struggle through.  I’m rooting for you!


I hope that this gives you a few more tools as you answer the question introduced earlier:


How do we live in gratitude and hope when pain lingers, when difficulty is still unresolved or ongoing, when goals and expectations not only falter but may not be restore-able within our power to act?


I am strengthened by my connection to you.  Thank you for reading and sharing this blog with others!  Until we meet together again, Happy Thanksgiving, and always remember to...


Live Beautifully!


Heather Butler

Founder and President of Beautiful Living, LLC



P.S. I’d love to stay connected to you!  Don't forget to follow me here at beautifullivingsystems.com by clicking on the blue “follow me” box above. I don’t have any mailing lists, nor do I sell your info. to anybody else.  It’s just me.  I would also like to invite you to follow me on Instagram at beautifullivingsystems.  See you there!


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