This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to give a short sermon in my church. The assigned topic, Being Grateful in Hard Times, was difficult for me because in the last few difficult years, I don’t know that I have done the best in being grateful. And to be honest, I feel really ashamed about that. Which I shouldn’t be, I know. I know the Lord doesn’t want me to feel that way. And I would say that Major Depressive Disorder is a pretty good excuse for failing to be grateful, but still. It made it difficult to prepare for the sermon. I was afraid of what I might find but I needed to go looking. What I figured out by the end of it all, is that I know, personally and deeply, some very important truths. So here are my tried and true methods for being grateful in difficult times.
1. Play the Grateful Game; With a Smile on Your Face (Even if it is a Forced Smile)
In college, my dear, dear friend and roommate Katie used to make me play the Grateful Game. Basically, when you feel really, really crummy, you take turns saying something you are grateful for until you feel better. I HATED this game. I hated the idea of trying to ignore valid, difficult feelings by covering them up with pretend gratitude. I’m not advocating wallowing, here. Just feeling things for what they are before trying to hide from them. And I stand by that. But when you start to wallow or dwell in feelings or thoughts that aren’t making you happy, stop it. And play the Grateful Game. By the way, kids LOVE this game.
It’s a very strange, but very true that the more we express gratitude, the more we find to be grateful for, and the more deeply we feel grateful. And that’s when gratitude becomes transformational.
2. Don’t Complain
Again, this doesn’t mean squashing unpleasant things or ignoring them. And it is important to put into words when things are frustrating or sad. But after it’s out there, don’t keep going back to it like a moth to a flame.
3. Don’t Compare
Comparison is a thief of joy. Don’t compare your life to someone else’s. Don’t compare your strengths and weaknesses. And don’t compare your situation: surely someone else has it worse, but comparison is not good ground to grow gratitude.
4. Live in the Moment
After I had my first child, I also had my first experience with chronic, debilitating pain. Before my baby, getting things done WAS fun. Relaxing meant tackling a new project. I didn’t really know how to stand still and I my self worth was equal to my productivity. As a new mom, I didn’t know how to slow down. For months, the pain was trying to tell me to do just that and I ignored it until it wouldn’t be ignored any more. I was then forced on my back for weeks. I couldn’t take care of my daughter on my own for almost a month. When I was able to start watching her again, I did a lot of watching her. I wasn’t distracted by other things I thought I needed to get done (because I couldn’t really do anything). And I learned to just enjoy her. I saw the world through her eyes, and I saw it’s wonder. See the wonder in daily moments. And don’t be so busy planning or stressing for the next thing that you don’t live now.
5. Keep an Eternal Perspective/See the Big Picture
It’s so easy in hard times to get caught up in our own sorrow. And that’s completely natural, it’s our sorrow. But trying to move our gaze through that looming sorrow in the front of our vision, and focusing on the big picture, is one step towards cultivating gratitude as part of us. Joseph B Wirthlin said:
“Learning to endure times of disappointment, suffering, and sorrow is part of our on-the-job training. These experiences, while often difficult to bear at the time, are precisely the kinds of experiences that stretch our understanding, build our character, and increase our compassion for others.”
Had I never experienced years of pain, I wouldn’t have the profound understanding and friendship with some of the most amazing people I know, including my own mom. I wouldn’t have the same priorities I have now. I wouldn’t have the same knowledge, love, and respect for my body that I have now. In short, I wouldn’t be who I am now without that experience.
Here is my challenge to you:
If you pray, say a prayer of Thanksgiving. If you don’t pray, then just make a list. Start with the easy things you are grateful for, the things that give you joy. When that gets too easy or too long, then add to your list the tough things in your life. The really, really hard things. Say it or write it down, even if you don’t mean it at first. And then ask yourself, “why?” Can you think of one good thing that has come from a trial? Two? More? Write them down. If you are coming up blank, go back a few years to something that WAS really hard, that you have mostly dealt with already, and that should start the ball rolling. When you are ready, come back to the thing that is really, really gripping you now and face it. Be grateful for it, and you will change it and yourself in the process.