2020 has been a difficult year for many of us. We are steeped in loss of all kinds. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been taken by this virus and they are being grieved by millions more. Millions of people are struggling with work closures, along with the anxiety about making ends meet and having enough to feed those they love. Our political divisions have consumed too many relationships and left us all feeling unsafe and unstable. It is hard to remember how much we have to be grateful for when we can hardly reconcile just how many small things we all took for granted not long ago.
In truth, grief often consumes our gratitude. Since the loss of my boy and the wreckage of our family, I have struggled to remember the many gifts that this life still holds. Until the time of COVID-19, my grief felt like a burden that separated me, even from my oldest friends. Grief is the black sheep in the family of emotions, and for those on the outside looking in, it is understandably too frightening to get too close, because it reminds us of how fragile and brief life really is, and that nothing we have is really ours for very long. They say that grief is the price we pay for the fullness of love and joy that our heart has held. It is hard to imagine a less appealing gift for all the hard work and goodness that lives between our most beloved relationships.
And yet, I have found that this deeply bewildering truth about grief can also become a window into gratitude. Wading through a transition into a life that has lost all its reference points is mysteriously also open to the present moment in surprising ways. Having been forced from the comfort of how we thought it was going to go, onto an unknowable new path, nothing ordinary can be taken for granted. Not those friends new and old that remain close to us, not the ease of a day that works, not a night of uninterrupted sleep. We are grateful for the small things that add up to a day we can love; we know as if for the first time that it has always been the small and ordinary elements of life that are the treasures. In this way, our grief is paired and even buoyed by our new experience of gratitude.
Even if our gratitude is different now, no longer conjuring the joy we once knew, it steadies our gaze, providing reminders of what life is still holding for us.
Gratitude is one of the traits that most defines a resilient heart and one of the most effective ways we can befriend our bewilderment. The French proverb that “Gratitude is the memory of the heart,” tells us that even in a heart shattered by loss, there remains this balm of goodness that refashions our heart into something that holds so much more than our own story. It becomes a link in the chain to all the stories that have come before and all that will carry us onward. It is the way to hold our memories as gifts while offering us the resilience that promises that the story of our lives is so much larger than we could have imagined, that the sky is so much wider than we can perceive.
There was a lucky time in my life when I had the chance to learn how to seek out, understand, pray for, and feel gratitude. I called it “The Summer of Gratitude” when I wrote every day about my discoveries and understood for the first time how to receive what I longed for. A key to my discovery was the simple and yet concealed idea that it is in prayer, the divine dialogue we have in our own heart, through which we have direct access to gratitude.
As we learn to listen deeply, a visceral feeling of how we are being heard, held, and loved at the moment arises. This kind of gratitude is a feeling as distinct as sadness and glimmers the same way that joy does.
I didn’t grow up with this ability to receive. It was something that I taught myself with the affirmation: “I am a joyful, grateful, excellent receiver.” I am trying this old lesson on again today, and it is more of a challenge this time in the sea of bewilderment. But I know from past experience that healing is perhaps the most profound gift of gratitude because it recognizes all the energetic forces continuously at work on your behalf. It both releases the pain that binds you and opens you into an alchemy of possibility. Gratitude is there for the asking. The more you do it and the more ways you learn to do it, the wider your capacity to ask and receive becomes.
I’ve found that the more attention we give to our capacity to receive, the more we can see all that there is to be grateful for. It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg phenomenon that feeds on itself, but can be hard to begin the cycle. Our attention is key, as is wanting to know – believing we are worthy to receive. As the scale tips towards witnessing all that is coming towards us, and our capacity for gratitude expands, something magical occurs. We tap into a flowing abundance that is only visible to the grateful eye. I often think of this flow as a parallel universe because truly, when you are outside of this gratitude reception, if someone told you how it could be different, it would sound like fiction.
So repeat after me, “I am a joyful, grateful, excellent receiver.” Even if you can’t feel it right away, know that teaching yourself to look with a grateful eye will make the bewildering state of things more beautiful and whole. Try this, begin every thought with thank you.