The hard work of gratitude

It’s so easy to complain.

Last January, as I sat in Phoenix, Ariz., away from the damp B.C. coast, I had an opportunity to rest, read, and write. My husband and I soaked in the beauty of desert life and relished local culture and events. We shared a sabbatical, a luxury not taken for granted.

Yet I recall being aware of the nature that resides within, the part of me that’s constantly threatening to turn my head away from the Gift, toward the self.

Unseasonably cold temperatures distracted from the sun-filled, expansive blue skies, and I caught myself grumbling at the need to change clothes three or four times a day. The mornings were cool and required jackets, even mitts. Around noon, I would sit on the deck in full sun, wearing a tank top and shorts, aware that I ought to be careful not to burn. A walk around the lake mid-afternoon proved too chilly for the shorts. Then, evening demanded an ensemble much like early morning.

First World problems, my children would chide.

One night, my husband and I watched comedian Ron James on TV. Our lives aren’t too difficult, James said, they’re too comfortable. The audience laughed at the irony of the statement, but his words gave me pause. When my world is too comfortable, I dwell on what’s missing and forget what I have. Often, a sense of entitlement surfaces.

Choosing a different posture

A few months ago, a friend and I had a conversation about suffering and pain and growth. She told me I had developed the spiritual discipline of gratitude, noting how I continually choose a posture of thankfulness in spite of my physical pain and multiple losses. I thanked her for the kind words, and continued to ponder what she said.

Despite my friend’s observation, I’m aware of how ungrateful I often feel. Life is hard, to use a cliché. It’s rarely what you expect. And if you hold too tightly to your idea of how life should look, disappointment prevails.

I didn’t expect to be unable to work at 47. Life will let us down. As one of my long-ago clients would say, “Suck it up, buttercup.”

But we don’t just absorb the disappointment into our psyche and have it disappear into nowhere. Like sponges, we suck up the despair and sense of being short-changed, and eventually reach a saturation point where we start to drip. Another disappointment hits and becomes like a giant hand twisting our sponge, until every drop of inner moisture is squeezed out. And there we sit, crusty, brittle, inflexible, dried up.

Unless.

Unless, by God’s grace, we opt for something different. Gratitude, I believe, is a spiritual discipline developed over time, honed in each moment when we choose between grumbling and thankfulness.

Gratitude grows

My sons have recently become intent on developing healthy lifestyles, complete with physical exercise and muscle-building activities. Hearing afresh from them how muscles
grow – tiny tissues tear and rebuild, stronger than before – gives me a picture of how gratitude grows.

The example of annoyance at having to change clothes multiple times a day is a “tiny tissue” indeed. However, it represents the subtle way I must choose gratitude in all things, every day. Gratitude is a mindset that grows slowly in the midst of small situations. But it can quickly stop the insidious infiltration of entitlement and discontent in our lives, and open new options.

In my coaching profession, we call it reframing. What’s another perspective on this situation? Perhaps by shifting even one degree, life can look quite different. And that’s how gratitude becomes a discipline – we willfully move from comfortable whining to a place of thankfulness.

This is not Pollyanna-ish. I’m not fond of the “God is good” reply, complete with cheesy smile and gloss-over approach to adversity. No, I’m advocating an authentic discipline that stares hard into the face of all things difficult and says – in spite of pain, in the midst of suffering, when loss burns to the soul – I give thanks.

Shelaine-Storm—Shelaine Strom is a career coach and member of Ross Road Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C.

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