Over and over, I’m reminded of the power of gratitude.
This kind of gratitude is not a shut-up-and-be-thankful mindset. It’s not a guilt trip word—not your mom saying “You should be grateful for this food! There are starving children in Africa!” It’s so much more powerful than that. Gratitude does its work regardless of our circumstances, and its power doesn’t rely on ignoring our pain or meditating about how someone else has it worse.
As Adele Ahlberg Calhoun so eloquently says in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, “Thankfulness is a thread that can bind together all the patchwork squares of our lives. Difficult times, happy days, seasons of sickness, hours of bliss—all can be sewn together into something lovely with the thread of thankfulness.”
Gratitude is keeping me afloat right now as we face a trivial, albeit frustrating situation. My husband and I have dreamed of living in a big city since before we got married, and we finally made the move to Atlanta in July.
What we did not dream about (or plan for) was our beautiful historic home in Mobile NOT SELLING. After four months on the market in the middle of peak selling season, nothing. It’s just not happening.
For the first time, we’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, and it is kind of terrifying. Fortunately, we’ve hustled to make ends meet every month, and we're doing fine.
So where’s the rub? It’s all about expectations vs. reality. What I want vs. what is real.
I want to go out to eat in this amazing new city. I want to buy a rug for my living room. I want to have fancy olive oil and eat extravagant meals every night (food is our thing). I want, I want, I want. We’re able to pay all of our bills. We’re not going into debt. We’re just not able to do all the things we want to do, and it makes me angry.
Recently, my attitude plummeted to an all-time low. I prayed for our house to JUST SELL ALREADY. But after some reflection, I realized the only thing that would fix my sadness and frustration was gratitude. Not our house selling. Not more money. Gratitude.
The problem with waiting to change my attitude until my circumstances line up with my expectations is that this will absolutely not be the last time things don’t go my way. Life is full of mountaintops and valleys, successes and failures, victories and tragedies. It doesn’t matter who you are—you can’t protect yourself from unfavorable circumstances.
So, when our happiness and contentment depend on life progressing as expected, we’re setting ourselves up for a miserable rollercoaster of uncontrollable emotions and ultimately, for overwhelming bitterness that doesn’t go away when life becomes “good” again. Bitterness clings to our character and prevents us from recognizing the good, even when it is all around us.
Gratitude, for me, seems to be the antidote to bitterness. So how do we cultivate gratitude, even in tough seasons? In my experience, you can't always just "choose joy" and move on. It requires WORK. It's a slow process of changing our mindset through a thousand tiny shifts.
Most of the time, we talk about concepts like gratitude in an incredibly impractical, philosophical way that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and cynical. Don't give me a lecture or inspirational speech—give me a tool!
So in that spirit, I want to share a tool with you. I've been using this practice to cultivate gratitude in my life during this season. It's hard, but making gratitude a priority is helping me sort through my emotions, keep my head above water and hold onto truth.
A tip: WRITE THIS DOWN. I do not think this would be effective as an in-your-head exercise. It's so powerful to think through this enough to put your thoughts on paper.
- Start with self-awareness: "I’m complaining about this a lot. It’s really bothering me. I need to address this.”
- Acknowledge your emotions: “I’m feeling very frustrated/angry/disappointed/sad/exhausted. Here are all the reasons why (this is my chance to complain!)”
- Ask if there is anything you can do to contribute to a solution: “Maybe I need to change the way I’m doing xyz / Maybe I need to go to therapy / Maybe I need to see a doctor / Maybe I need to have a hard conversation with the person who is making me upset.”
- If the situation is out of your control, accept it for what it is and affirm your dignity and strength. “I cannot control my circumstances. This is not some kind of punishment or confirmation that something is wrong with me. Bad things happen to everyone, and I'm not alone. It's OK to be sad about this."
- List anything you can be grateful for that specifically relates to your struggle. As a Christian, I take this in a spiritual direction, but you don’t have to. I love Calhoun’s prompt in Spiritual Disciplines: “Where is there evidence of God’s presence in the hardship? Is there anything you can be thankful for?”
After going through this exercise in writing, I guarantee you’ll see your circumstances differently. I certainly did. Here are some excerpts from my journal entry about our home not selling:
- Acknowledgement of emotions: This circumstance causes me anxiety, bitterness, frustration and stress. I dream of fun times with my family and friends. I dream of being more generous and feeling more secure. Being able to save, plan and give instead of staying home, saying no and going without. It hurts my pride and my independence, and it makes me uncertain, fearful and embarrassed. I feel like this situation is exaggerating my feelings of loneliness in a new city and my grief about what we left behind in our former life.
- Evidence of God’s presence / reasons to be thankful: We’ve been provided for through some crazy means. We found some random savings bonds that paid our mortgage one month. We got our first month’s rent approved to be paid by Scott’s company as a moving expense. I sold almost $2,000 in stuff before we moved. I’ve done a lot of marketing work. Every month, we are still able to eat healthy, delicious food, go out to eat a couple times, put gas in our cars and pay all of our bills. I’m still able to stay home with Julia, and she's still able to go to her "school" twice a week. It’s been inconvenient, but we aren’t going without any necessities. This season has forced us to cocoon as a family and has drawn us closer as we get used to our new home. It has caused us to refrain from being busy and has brought us back to tight budgeting when we’d probably be blowing money all over the place if circumstances were different. After this is over, we will be in a much better place financially because of the discipline we developed during this time.
Do you see how this works? I’m almost scared of what life would be like if we weren’t going through this season! That’s the power of gratitude—it reframes our circumstances and causes us to see the bigger picture. It also allows us to see how we are growing through our struggle and gives us hope that we will be better for it on the other side. It helps us make wiser decisions and regulate our emotions.
A final note—I KNOW some of you are struggling with issues much bigger and more serious than financial inconvenience. While I do believe gratitude has a place in everyone's life, there is space within a life of gratitude for grief, anger and sadness about things that just shouldn't be. Hang in there. I hope gratitude can be a life preserver in the midst of your storm.