Does This Gratitude Thing Still Work?

As I usually do, I posted my weekly Grace in Small Things post yesterday, and, as often happens, I received a comment questioning its efficacy:

Please don't take this as a cynical horrible question. I'm just going through a bad time right now and I'm curious — does this gratitude thing still work?
two petals

When I started Grace in Small Things back in the fall of 2008, I did so in response to a therapist who asked me to start a daily practice of writing down five things that didn't suck at the end of every day.

I was going through a really difficult time back then. I didn't write about it here, but I was on stress leave from work due to crippling anxiety and depression after a handful of years that involved an abusive work environment, my cervical cancer, the Palinode's broken back, and a then unacknowledged addiction to alcohol. I was just looking for a reason to bother continuing my existence in those days. Breakfast came with a side of suicidal ideation.

I knew that I'd never stick with any kind of gratitude journalling on my own, so I decided to make myself beholden to a community, and that is how I came to creating GiST. It worked. I committed to posting five things that were not terrible about my life every day for 365 days, and I did it, but it was hard. I'm the kind of person who normally thinks gratitude journals are bullshit. Some days I wanted to kick the whole community to the curb and just continue to devote myself to the cynicism I thought of as realism. Some days, listing things like buttered toast and pink kitten noses made me angry. It was really difficult to understand why these things mattered.

I kept at it, though, now that I had this community in hand, and I secretly hoped that at the end of my 365 days I would be able to declare that some great, tidal change had occurred within me. The final day came and went, though, and that great, tidal change was nowhere to be found, at least not then, and at least not in the dramatically transformative incarnation for which I was hoping. People asked me if I would write a post about my experiences with my first year with GiST, and I couldn't bring myself to do it. I didn't know what to say about it. Life was still too hard.

Truth be told, I felt a bit like a fraud. Life was still hard, and stuff was still not awesome.

It was better, though. In small, less perceptible ways, I was changing, but I didn't really notice it until a few months after that first year. I had pulled back from posting to GiST every day to doing it just once a week, but the habit of that thought process stuck with me, and not just as it regarded GiST. I was pausing to take note of things that didn't suck throughout my days as a natural reaction to negative thinking now.

And I wasn't making stuff up, either. I wasn't twisting crap into being less crappy in any false, unrealistic way. I was finding things that didn't suck that were actually there. They were always there, but in the past I had seen the negatives as outweighing the positives, whereas now I was seeing the positives as co-existent elements that, if not negating the negatives, were at least softening or even complementing them.

post-storm tree

Life is still hard these days, and my faith in humanity is still often wafer thin, but I've come to realize that my almost solely cynical approach, the one I had for well over thirty years, was not actually the realism I thought it was. It was as much bullshit as the über-sweet Pollyanna crap I scoffed at.

Grace in Small Things has become an inoculation against bitterness rather than a fluffy grasp at sweetness. It has become a practice to restore balance to my negatively skewed outlook, and it works, at least for me.

Cynicism and bitterness only lead us to part of the story, not to the actual complexity, the fullness, of any situation. It's an easy part of the story to hang onto, because it asks the least of us. It only asks us to observe. It does not require our whole selves. It allows us to distance ourselves. We are not responsible. We are not involved. We are not that.

GiST did not single-handedly make me quit my devastating job or embrace sobriety or pursue a career in web design and consulting, but it definitely pushed me into a fuller, more complex kind of thinking about what the world has to offer and — this is the most important part, the part I wasn't expecting at all — what I have to offer the world. It is because of this shift in thinking, though, that my life has taken on enormous changes over the last three years.

I didn't realize how much I had to give and how much I wanted to give while I was concentrating on the wickedness of humanity and the cruelty of the physical universe, but there are flowers in the mud. I've seen that spot of vulnerability inside the bitter twist of a woman I used to work with. That angry kid hugs with a jarring ferocity. The garbage is a gold mine for the birds that sing through window in the late afternoon. That's not bullshit. That's just the way the universe works.

The world is more than dreck, and you do a disservice to yourself not to look at all of it, not just the shit and not just the fantastic stuff, but all of it. This universe we inhabit is this phantasmagorically complex scene rife with both villains and heroes, the horrible and the pleasing, and I want to see all of it. It's incredible, and I only get to witness it with this set of eyes of once. I want to actually see all of it, and not just allow myself to use the darker side of it to distance myself from the whole affair.

So, in answer to your question, yes, this gratitude thing works, at least for me. It didn't make things good, at least in the way I had initially hoped against hope it might three years ago, but it did bring things into more proper focus. It allows me to see the natural complexity of situations, which, on the one hand, makes reality an entirely slippery animal that is impossible to pin down, but, on the other hand, it makes very real the possibility in every circumstance.

Gratitude isn't about keeping it sweet. It's about appreciating the whole story. It's about allowing for possibility both within and without, and I am surprised as any cynic that this has turned out to be the case.

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