How I Found My Gratitude

Meister Eckhart, the 13th century Christian mystic and philosopher famously said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, that will suffice.”

As simple as that sounds, I still find myself having a hard time cultivating an attitude of gratitude, even though this is the time of year when we're all supposed to feel thankful. For at least the better part of a day, we all try to focus on what we're thankful for before we dive headlong into the holiday shopping frenzy. And, if you’re like me, this time of year is treacherous for gratitude.

Shopping for presents is a sure way to add a lot of items to the “I want (no need!) that for me too” list. I don’t even know how deprived I am of material possessions until I step into Macy’s amidst a crowd of well-dressed women who all seem to have not only a better wardrobe but better hairstyles, shoes, and especially eyebrows than I do.

This is also the time of year when Christmas cards start arriving, and try as I might to resist, I still end up comparing myself, not so much to others but to some mysterious sense I get from cultural, familial, and personal expectations (often that I don’t even know are buried deep down in there) of where I’m supposed to be at this time in my life. There’s a voice in my head that gets really shrill this time of year as it starts reminding me about all of my inadequacies (which this Voice knows very, very well).

The Voice says things like, “You don’t own a house yet. In fact, you don’t even have a guest room or an extra bathroom. And you’re not likely to for a very, very long time, especially on this salary.”

This is not a recipe for a grateful and thankful heart. It’s more in line with the great villains of the season—Grinch and Scrooge.

Of course this isn’t a part of myself that I’m proud of. I know it’s childish and represents my baser instincts. But I’ve also learned recently that it’s actually physically unhealthy. Not only is gratitude a good spiritual practice (all of the major world religions teach gratitude as a primary tool)—it’s a good health practice.

Lily likes to give this statue a hug when we ride by.

This weekend we spent a lot of time talking about the benefits of gratitude and the science behind why gratitude is so good for our health at my small, progressive church in San Francisco. According to the Wall Street Journal, there’s a whole host of good things associated with gratitude—more energy, a more optimistic outlook on life, more friends, less stress, and a greater resistance to infections. Sounds like a gratitude shot along with my flu shot is in order this year.

One of the exercises we did was write a gratitude list with 30 entries. What helped me was a suggestion someone shared about how she got through a particularly rough time when she and her family were living in a cheap rental without even money for heating oil. She had a personal mantra that “Little things make me happy”—and she looked for the very specific, small things that brought her joy.

So instead of the biggies that I’m usually tempted to put on a list like this in some strange attempt to be weighty and ponderous (you know, “life” or “the Divine”), I just put down little things. I promise not to share all 30, but here are seven:

I'm grateful for this tree to look at every day.

  1. The tall, glorious tree outside our kitchen window that we can see from miles away and chart a course home.
  2. The way Lily runs across the apartment when I’m leaving for work or class with her arms outstretched yelling, “Hugs! Hugs!”
  3. Morning family snuggles in bed.
  4. Bike rides through Golden Gate Park with Lily perched in her bright green iBert seat (I love that she wants to give the statue of Goethe and Schiller a hug every time we ride by).
  5. Cups of hot Milo (anyone else know about this delicious Ovaltine-like drink?) on the couch with Stephen after Lily is asleep.
  6. My newly organized pantry.
  7. The world’s sweetest dog who teaches me daily about unconditional love (especially putting up with a toddler’s often overly-enthusiastic affections).

Maybe not surprisingly, the exercise worked.

I got out of my attitude of scarcity and found my gratitude. The warmth I felt while focusing on what was right instead of what was wrong lasted all day. I was a more patient mom, a more affectionate wife. And it probably would have lasted through this morning had we not woken up to a very cranky almost-two-year-old who was suffering a serious letdown after almost five days straight of cousins, aunts, and uncles to play with. I can see why a daily gratitude practice—probably especially through this season—would be good for my health.

I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate a gratitude practice into our day so that Lily can learn about thankfulness in the same way that she knows about stories before bedtime; it will just be routine. Any ideas? We do a short grace before meals, and I’ve read in many parenting books that this is a good way to cultivate gratitude even for families who don’t have religious affiliations.

Maybe a habit of sharing one good thing that happened that day while we’re eating supper? (Bedtime already stretches too long these days!). If anyone else has some good suggestions for what you do or what you’d like to do to cultivate an ongoing attitude of gratitude in your home, I’d love to hear them.