Grappling with Gratitude

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It hasn’t been an ideal month in which to practice gratitude. Or, perhaps I should say, it has been the most ideal.

We’ve struggled with parenting battles – rages that unhappily coincide with bedtime and can last for hours – moments of being all consumed with how to respond with even a fraction of patience to the hostile confrontations that have gone on day after day. Dave and I have both been at a loss for how to deal with the behaviour – do we crank down on it and treat it with a no nonsense approach (my way) or do we show continual love and grace in the face of being attacked (his way)? Being divided on such a key issue in our parenting is not a comfortable place to be and we had many ‘discussions’ about this during the month.

Then I was struck down by a severe case of the flu. Bed ridden for two days with fever and chills, unable to perform even simple parenting duties but struggling to help out at peak times. It was exhausting. Dave picked up the slack and powered on without me but he found it difficult. Parents helped out with the load as well but it still seemed as if we were only just keeping our heads above water.

Enter the stomach bugs. We have now had three in the family go down in the throes of vomiting – always at night and inevitably covering all available surfaces. This brings with it a whole new level of parenting responsibility (and laundry) – keeping germs at bay. And for kids who relish running around the backyard completely naked, this is no small feat.

Can you be be grateful in the midst of these circumstances? What is the true power of gratitude if our negative experiences of life were to overwhelm it?

A few months back I listened to an interview with David Steindl-Rast, a 90 year old Benedictine monk who has survived and resisted two world wars and who has the most astounding respect and wonder for gratitude. For someone who has come by the practice with such gravity, his insistence that you can be grateful ‘in every moment’ is challenging.

And yet it seems to make sense. I am definitely not thankful for the parenting battles, the flu or gastro; but within this reality I can still be thankful for breath, for limbs that work, for a child healthy enough to express his independence with such gusto. I can breathe gratitude for a body that works to rid itself of germs, an immune system that is tirelessly working to defeat attackers even as I lay there ‘doing’ nothing. For the small acts of kindness that sustain – the hearty chicken soup that got me through two days of being catatonic, the pink grocery bag full of leftover party food that meant I could throw together a pasta bake last night, the thoughtful delivery of bread and games for the kids that got me through the woes of today. The messages from kind friends, the forum for lamenting my situation when it all felt too much, the practice of daily writing that allowed me to recognise the blessings as they occured.

When I start naming these beautiful moments, a strange thing occurs. It starts in my posture and the centre of my being. The heaviness with which I carried my circumstance starts to lift away, being replaced by a feeling of weightlessness – of wonder and strength. My reality has not shifted, but my experience of it has been completely altered.

The beauty of this practice is not only the use of it as a weapon – a direct response to unfortunate circumstances, but also in the framing of the everyday. If we truly notice and appreciate the good, the beautiful – the unavoidable facts of our luxury – it is inevitable that our demeanour will improve as well.

I have no doubt that had the month gone smoothly I would still have appreciation for the concept of gratitude. But the internalisation that is so powerful to transform moods and outlooks – that I suspect I would have gone without. Who knew that there was so much to be grateful for in suffering?

This piece is part of an exploration of monthly themes springing out of my resolutions for this year.

January: The Art of Hospitality
February: A Quest for Spirituality
March: The Audacity of Authenticity
April: The Genius of Generosity
May: The Fortune of Friendship
June: The Tapestry of Family
July: The Humour Chronicles
August: A Celebration of Serenity
September: Poetry & Passion

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