"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Sunday, November 25, 2018

On Grace and Gratitude

I hosted Thanksgiving dinner at my house and I was determined to do it right. Tasks were delegated to family beforehand; each member was to bring a side dish or other provision. My sister cooked the turkey; I baked the pies. I devised a clean-up plan that included certain stations: garbage scraper, compost filler, dishwasher loader. There were activities for the kids: a puzzle, a papier mache turkey to decorate, card games. I thought I had Thanksgiving conquered. But when it came time for the meal, for what should have been grace, there was this chaotic momentum that destroyed the most sacred part of the day. It all happened at once: the kids needed their plates made at their table in the kitchen, and I wasn't in the dining room to put a halt to the passing of food, which then led to the eating of food, to a full communal nose-dive into every plate and platter. It wasn't one of our best moments.

Truth is, I had planned to find a poem on gratitude, or better, write one, but there was this debate going on in my head about being too literary--it might turn people off--or too cliche or sentimental (that would turn me off). I didn't have time to strike a balance and deliver words that could be effective. So I skipped it. In truth, I ran away from the question of grace and how to properly say it.

It was a moment indicative of the times. Our society is so incredibly fast-paced and overburdened with stuff, so focused on satisfying needs and desires, on acquiring things (we've even allowed Black Friday to infiltrate our day of thanks), we don't create an adequate space for gratitude. Yes, you can have the typical Thanksgiving grace where you utter a quick prayer to God (really it's more of a nod) and go around the table with every guest uttering something for which they are grateful, and we all say the same things: family, food, shelter, possessions, successes, without really acknowledging the value of these things.

My mother attempted to rectify the situation afterward by having us all gather in the living room, hold hands, say a prayer, give thanks. By doing this, she created a space for gratitude, but it was a bit awkward and somewhat shame-inducing. I suppose it was better than nothing.

To truly make a space for gratitude, to fully incorporate it into a life (and I am speaking mostly to myself here, to teach myself a lesson) it has to involve ritual or creativity or concerted effort. You need to have not only a space, but time. Thanksgiving grace is fleeting and can be trite, the way it is normally done. So how can we do gratitude right?

First, we need to examine what gratitude is. In "The Science of Gratitude: How Being Thankful Makes Us Happier" David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride defines gratitude as "an emotion that we feel when we believe that someone or something has given us something that we couldn't easily achieve on our own." DeSteno says that gratitude, when it is fully recognized, is not a "passive thing." It inspires us to want to pay back our givers, or perhaps even "go above and beyond" and pay it forward.

So, fully realizing gratitude has a chain reaction effect, and this is all good once the realization actually occurs. That's the hard part. To stop the momentum of life to fully assimilate gratitude.

DeSteno recommends gratitude journaling. I think this is a good start. Taking time to write out the things you are grateful for and explain why is key. I can easily say I am grateful for family, friends, etc, but this is trite. If I elaborate on why I am grateful, well, this fleshes out a certain history, one that may include a significant about of suffering. We shy away from that, but we shouldn't.

Before my husband and children, I struggled, overall, with existential angst that would manifest itself in crippling anxiety. I worried endlessly about irrational ideas regarding my health. My relationship with my husband has grounded me; I knew from the beginning that I was guaranteed love. He was and is my rock and rampart. My kids, two beings that I created with my own body (at the same time, mind you), astound me daily with their physical beauty and talents and the cute little sayings that come out of their mouths. They give me a strong sense of purpose, but they also teach me not to take myself too seriously, which is the perfect anecdote for angst.

So there is the why of my gratitude. Or part of it. I need to remind myself of this when the days are stressful and I want to run away.

I know myself, though. I must be careful to curb my perfectionist tendencies, because these are the enemies of gratitude. I tend to have expectations for people as I have for myself. This can be a real gratitude killer, because I nitpick about what is missing instead of appreciating what is there. Perfectionism is another topic entirely and it does have its place, especially in terms of writing and art, but one needs to be also mindful of its propensity to destroy a perfectly good emotion.

I recently bought an over-priced but extremely quaint and festive Advent calendar from Pottery Barn. I was planning on stocking it with chocolate and candy for the kids for the 24 days of Advent, but I think I need to walk the walk and push myself to come up with something, some little or big thing that I am grateful for on each particular day and have the kids do the same. This will hopefully offset any of the materialistic indulgences of the holiday season.

Well, maybe it will give it a nudge.

Because it is a type of meditation, I fully believe that a practice in gratitude can change the wiring in the brain and the emotions it triggers (or doesn't trigger). It's truly a matter of discipline. I can only hope I stick with the challenge to reap its benefits.

Here are some websites:

Gratitude journaling: https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-journal/

Gratitude meditation: https://jackkornfield.com/meditation-gratitude-joy/

Gratitude poses in yoga:  https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/two-fit-moms-8-gratitude-poses-illuminate-blessings#gid=ci020756aee00a25bd&pid=two-fit-moms-in-wild-thing

Gratitude crafts including making your own gratitude calendar: https://www.bhg.com/thanksgiving/decorating/bring-thanks-to-your-thanksgiving-table/?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=bhg_mybhg&utm_content=editorialboost_netflix&utm_term=2018111917

Gratitude to-do calendar: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Happy_November_2018.pdf