For most of last year, it felt like my right leg was on fire. The rheumatoid arthritis that I’ve had since the age of three flared radiating lightning-bolt heat and pain through my ankle and into my knee. It kept me from sleeping much. Elevating the leg didn’t help. My medication had no effect. Treatment options? Too invasive and risky.
Each night, when I was awakened by the pain, I’d get up and begin walking the halls of my house. The joint loosened as I walked and that eased the pain a bit. So many nights I just kept walking.
I also felt a bit sorry for myself in those middle-of-the-night wanderings. I was uncomfortable, scared that I wouldn’t recover, and utterly exhausted. I felt broken and angry and I was having a hard time tuning in to anything but the pain.
Still, I knew one way through the troubling time was to cling to the goodness in my life that was there too. I needed to practice gratitude and notice all the things that were still working, instead of being consumed by what wasn’t.
It can be hard to see the goodness when we are living in the shadows of life. But that is when we need gratitude the most. That's when we must go looking for it.
Gratitude in Good and Bad Times
Gratitude is easy when you are in love or you receive a big check, or a special gift, or the baby is sleeping through the night. It’s all good and easy to give thanks when the food is on the table, the boss compliments you at work, the car is humming. But can you also give thanks when the recipe is ruined and the boss is a jerk and car repairs are going to run $1,200?
Gratitude can make our best days brighter, and it is the one thing that can help us make it through the tough times. It is not frivolous. Not a luxury. It is a coping strategy. And it works.
How to Find Gratitude When You Don’t Feel Grateful
Gratitude is not some foo-foo practice. It has practical application and can instantly make things just a little bit better. When I was in the murkiness of my chronic illness, I began giving thanks for the few hours I did manage to sleep each night, rather than all those I spent awake.
I’d text a friend with the good news: “I slept two hours last night.” Or, “I got in a full four.”
I wrote the number in my calendar to remind myself during the day that I’d gotten some good sleep and I wrote other details. Love notes to my life really: “When I was up last night, the house was so peaceful, I love the quiet.” Or: “The moon was so beautiful it lit up the house.”
And after awhile, I began to relax a bit. I didn’t feel so lost or worried. I begin to believe I’d get through it – and I knew that if nothing changed I still had lots of goodness in my life.
It is during these difficult times that gratitude must become a deliberate, active practice. You must seek it out and when you find it you must celebrate that goodness, soak it up.
Here are three ways to do it:
1. Start with any little thing. When you are knocked back by life, find any little thing that is working and cling to it. The breath in your body. A place to sleep. A bite of food. Eyes to see with. A friend to call. When you think of it, these so-called little things are not really little at all. They are life giving. Yet these are the very things we overlook because they are innate and familiar. Pause and notice these things now. Give thanks for them. Just a minute will be enough to shift you to a place where you can better deal with the challenges before you.
2. Get up and help someone else. You got troubles? Chances are your neighbor or friend or hair stylist does too so instead of focusing solely on your bad news, reach out to help someone cope with their stuff. Take a casserole over to the woman just diagnosed, string the holiday lights for the neighbor recovering from surgery, let someone cut ahead of you in line. We’ve all got stress and troubles. When we reach out to one another not only do you help them survive, but the generous act will give you a boost too.
3. Do one thing today that you are good at. Are you good at organizing cupboards? Well then, when everything is falling apart, go organize the cupboards. Or paint, or garden, or make some soup, or bake cookies, or hug your child, or fix the faucet. Often when we are surrounded by doom we feel incapable of coping with anything. Darkness pushes in and soon we figure we can’t do anything right. Baloney. Remind yourself of all that you are capable of by moving toward your talents. And, when you are done, you have another thing to be grateful for.
I’m not saying the practice of gratitude will return you instantly to a state of bliss and joy. I’m not even saying there are rainbows in every storm. Some storms are just big and sloppy and they whip you about.
But, when the wind blows and the trouble comes and you are looking for help to get through, try gratitude. It is a coping strategy and it helps us survive when we aren’t sure if we can.