~by Michelle (and Alicia)

Image by Dallas Drotz

There was a time — quite a long stretch of time, actually — when I would hear people say, “Practice gratitude” and I would shrivel up a little inside. Things were bone-deep hard in my life, and gratitude definitely felt more like a platitude. When people shared (felt like threw) that idea over the pulpit or the social media fence, it often felt somehow like a dismissal of the pain that was already mostly invisible to others. It left me feeling even more invisible.

It’s not that I hadn’t tried being grateful, it just didn’t quite…work?…for some reason.

So this weekend when I heard ripples about how some people are responding to President Nelson’s #GiveThanks invitation with not-such-positive feelings, I could empathize, at least a little.

Of course, I don’t know what the specific bristle is about for different individuals, but I’ve heard from some that it can be hard to see people such a flurry of posts about the things that for many represent “sorrow that the eye can’t see” in their lives. For example, posts about health or health-dependent activities and opportunities can hurt when you are sick; posts about children can trigger the ache when you are childless or mourning a loss of a child; posts about happy marriages can sting when you are single or struggling with marriage issues. And the list can go on.

And we all know that social media is well-known for being a potential vehicle for feeding that sort of “pouring lemon juice on the wound” kind of feeling when someone is already hurting. (Sometimes it can even create pain when we didn’t feel it before. Social media is a topic for another day, though….)

I don’t know how that stinging feeling might be transformed for you if you are hurting, but I can share that God did bring friends and resources and language and mentors who helped the idea of gratitude slowly start to crack through the protective shell I was living behind. Through them, God helped the idea go from a sour platitude to something more like the oil the Good Samaritan poured into the wounds of his should-have-been enemy. The oil of joy, even.

Gratitude is still something I’m practicing, but I’m understanding more why sages from all traditions through millennia have encouraged it, and why those in the modern-day medical and mental health professions also encourage practicing gratitude. I can taste that it has the potential to be life-changing and life-giving.

One of my friends who is further along the gratitude practice path, who has helped me feel and understand more of its power, gave me permission to share the following.

As a little bit of background: Alicia is two years out from a devastating cancer diagnosis (stage 4 metastatic breast cancer). Her treatments thrust her still-young-body into way-too-early menopause, mocking her desire for more children. She will have to be on treatments for the rest of her life, which life she realizes may be shorter than she had planned or hoped for. (And this is only the stuff she has felt to write about publicly. We all have sorrows that are not visible to others.)

In short, she knows something of what it is like to grieve, to lose, to yearn. She knows the longing for something once experienced in the past (like health, flexibility, fertility) or the pain taking a future dream and packing it away for this life.

This is what she wrote a couple of days ago.

Through hard chemo, I kept a gratitude journal.

One day, I was only well enough to scrawl, “I’m grateful for puzzles.” The writing is wobbly, and I treasure it.

I learned a lot about the power of gratitude with that daily practice. I learned when we pay attention, really pay attention to our lives and every blessing worth expressing gratitude, healing pours through the crevices of our souls.

Gratitude mends individuals, relationships, communities, nations! I spent my life [before cancer] unaware of the power gratitude held.

One evening after a treatment, our family went out to eat. My head was wrapped in my favorite white scarf. My family all wore telling pink bracelets. Our server paid for our meal but I found it still came with a price: he’d lost his wife to breast cancer, and he laid his grief at our feet, going into great detail about the process.

It sparked an anxiety attack.

I went back to our hotel room and while everyone else slept, I forced myself to write two full pages of things I was grateful for. Through writing, my heart slowed down, my breathing returned to normal. I was finally able to fall asleep.

So I find: When I can’t find my footing to walk by faith, I walk by gratitude.

Are you breathing? Is your heart keeping time within your cozy core? Breath and blood are miracles. Commonplace, but no less miraculous.

I’m grateful for breath.

For blood.

My blood and Christ’s.

I’ve heard some criticism over public gratitude practices…and I disagree. Full stop. Gratitude is a healer. Not THE Healer, but it is a powerful, underestimated and often untapped force for healing.

There are times when others post about what they are grateful for and it hurts. It hurts like when someone my age goes jogging by my house or announces a pregnancy, but under no circumstances do I want anyone to try to manage my pain for me. Don’t you dare NOT share your pregnancy announcement. I want a chance to practice celebrating with you AND feeling what that pain/grief has to teach me. I want to go to God with it, lean in and learn. Also keep running by my house. It’s good for both of us. Your physical practice of running is making you stronger and my mental practice of accepting my new limitations is making me stronger.

If someone else’s public gratitude practice hurts, lean into your own practice ten fold.

Write two pages when you can’t breathe.

Write one line when you don’t have strength.

But do it. Do it, and see if your life isn’t revolutionized. Miracles have a funny way of flourishing when they’re paid attention to.

Kind of like people.