“Just count your blessings,” they’d tell me whenever I would share my suffering. They’d label it complaining or griping, so I learned quickly to stay quiet and answer, “I’m fine” whenever someone asked (but didn’t really want to know), “How are you?”
“It’s important to be positive,” they’d say whenever I told them I was struggling and needed support. Or when I was anxious about the murkiness of living in a place where there were more mysteries and questions than solutions and answers. “There are always people who have it worse than you do” was the nail in the coffin of my vulnerability.
Gratitude has gained momentum in pop culture, due to the push for gratitude journals and writing five or ten positive aspects about your life for which you are thankful. I always wondered, to whom are they grateful? Who are they thanking? As a Catholic, it was obvious: God. When I am thankful, it is to God for everything He has given me.
But sometimes the world just tells us to thank a person (which we should do) or maybe the universe (ick) or even ourselves for all of our accomplishments (cue the pride). The clichés spoken about gratitude and counting your blessings are intended to silence pain, and successfully so. Many of us have been walking on this earth with heavier burdens than ever before, and the message that life is grand and we should remain positive does not help to ease that load.
The first time in my life I grappled with an inability to be grateful was shortly after Sarah’s birth. Her diagnosis of Apert syndrome literally blindsided me. I had no idea what Apert syndrome was, how to manage it, what her prognosis would be – and what would be required of me as her primary caregiver. Today, nine years later, I still don’t really know.
But what saved my sanity and preserved my peace was this: finding small increments of every day to notice things outside of myself, and to be grateful for them.
This practice began when I’d notice a swelling in my chest of anxiety. I’d stop, pause to breathe, and look outside my family room window. There, I’d often see a mama robin feeding her fledglings, or an iris whose blossom had just unfurled to the sun, or an elderly couple sauntering past while holding hands.
Most of the time, I had to look to small, simple things, like a sunrise or a hot mug of tea in the morning. When a person moves from a fairly predictable rhythm to complete chaos day after day, it’s difficult to find ways that God is working through your suffering and darkness.
We live in uncertain times. More and more, we open our laptops or turn on our electronic devices and find increasing global and political devastation that leaves us questioning if there’s any good left in the world. At one point in my own life, as I toted Sarah from medical facility to rehabilitation centers for testing and treatments, I couldn’t find much good. Depression had sunk its teeth deep into my psyche, and neither prayer nor sacraments could pull me out of it.
The black hole of some forms of suffering cannot be overcome by saccharine thoughts of positivity or affirmations on your mirror. They cannot be erased by cheer and merriment or distraction and busyness. Sometimes, you have to create what you need to see and feel and hear. Sometimes, you need to allow the Holy Spirit to groan on your behalf and breathe new life into you so that you can co-create with Him.
What I tell people now is that if they can’t find any good for which to be grateful, then they can choose good actions, like patience in the grocery store line or kindness to the rude customer service representative. If they can’t find anything beautiful in the world because of the jarring and disturbing news headlines, then break away from it and take a walk in nature. (I promise you will find beauty in God’s natural world.) And if you can’t seem to sift through fake news and what’s true, turn to God Who is Truth.
Each of us carries the agency to be people of integrity – for our actions to match our values. We can choose to be honest in the face of deception, to be courageous when we are afraid, to be kind when met with persecution or indifference, to love when everyone is fighting.
The power of gratitude is that we see God where others cannot. The power of grace is that it penetrates through our own darkness, so that we can find God in places of weakness and suffering, including our own. And we find, through gratitude, that we can learn to be content with the vast mysteries God chooses to keep as such, maybe because we could not handle the answers and solutions we so desperately seek.
Gratitude elevates our hearts away from self and the world to Heaven, to what is beyond this life and its messes and complications. A heart that finds ways to praise and thank God in the midst of life’s trials is a heart that is full and at rest.