I tried to believe my worries were bogus—or, at least, a waste of time—but the knowledge wasn’t getting into my heart. So, a little desperately, I accepted a challenge. For two months, I carried a pocket-sized notebook around with me, and I wrote down everything for which I was grateful. My life became a series of moments in which I attended to the beauty around me and within me. I hoped the exercise would make me finally happy and content.
And it didn’t.
Because I discovered something both wonderful and disconcerting about gratitude:
Gratitude is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.
How We Abuse Gratitude
When we find ourselves in the midst of struggle and sorrow over which we have no control, a practice of gratitude is essential, because we need to be reminded of the rest of the story. We need to be reminded of the gifts we have in the midst of the pain we endure. We need to be blessed by the whole truth. It restores balance. It brings peace.
But when we turn to gratitude to feel quickly content within a misery we might redeem, we have made gratitude a method for accepting a crummy status quo. A practice of inertia. A discipline for safety. A way to avoid change:
Instead of leaving a toxic job, we tell ourselves to be grateful for our paycheck. Instead of challenging an abusive spouse, we’re grateful for our friends. Instead of asking the one we love to stop drinking, we’re grateful for the moments of sobriety. Instead of being honest about the wounds our parents inflicted, we’re grateful for the roof they provided. Instead of risking what we’re passionate about in the world, we’re grateful for the good-but-soul-numbing things we already have.
Most of us abuse gratitude. By making it a means to an apathetic end.
But gratitude is not only meant to satisfy us; it’s meant to send us.
Gratitude erases our sense of scarcity. It works the abundance of life into our bones. Not so we might enjoy perpetual abundance, but so our sense of abundance might strengthen us for the barren times. Gratitude is the sweet light we carry into the bitter darkness. Gratitude is the warmth we carry into the cold.
Which is to say, gratitude is a lot like autumn.
Gratitude Prepares Us for Winter
Autumn is here again, and there is red everywhere.
Red in the canopies above, red in the dwindling-slanting light, red in the shine of apples ripened by summer heat, and red in the rosy glow of school-aged cheeks ripened by the autumn chill. The world is turning red like a stoplight, commanding us, “Halt, attend, do not ignore me for another season. Behold the abundance and the beauty you walk within.”
The rolling orange hues of a pumpkin patch and the harvest moon and the deep bronze of fresh apple cider and maple glaze and the sweet smell of composting leaves and the slippery scent of pumpkin guts and the smoky aroma of fires warming hands in the night and the sharp odor of crisp outdoors on the skin and the tanginess of apples picked and pressed and pied and Thanksgiving tables overflowing with the flavors of the season.
While the days shrink, the sensory onslaught of autumn expands. And it needs to expand, because seasons change and we will soon be confronted by the cold, dark, barren winter that follows. The abundance of autumn imprints itself on our hearts so we might be empowered to carry a resilient sense of light and warmth into the darkest and coldest days of the year.
Autumn is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.
Just like gratitude.
Sent by Gratitude
The abundance and the beauty present in every moment is there for us to take in, not so we might settle in it, but so it might settle in us.
Several years ago, I took the gratitude challenge, and my world ceased to be a place of scarcity. Everything dripped with the light of our raging sun, the shimmer of leaf-shadows on my living room floor became a holy dance, and the laughter (and screaming) of my children became a sacred symphony. I knew I had more than enough, and I knew I was more than enough.
I quit being afraid of my loneliness, because abundance was keeping me company, even when I was alone. I quit worrying that if I spoke up, people would decide I’m a fraud and reject me. I quit worrying that if I stood up and stood out people would leave me. I quit worrying about the dark times ahead of me, because gratitude had lit a light inside of me.
Two months after beginning the gratitude challenge, I started writing, and I started this blog.
Gratitude fills us up with abundance so our fear won’t disable us and the unknown path won’t deter us. Gratitude fills us up so we can end olds ways and walk new paths and, on those new paths, discover who we’ve always been. It’s scary and uncertain and unknown, but it’s enough.
What if we all took the gratitude challenge?
What if we all got ambushed by abundance?
What scary-wonderful paths might we begin to walk?
Who might we remember ourselves to be?
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.