The Art of Learning to Be Grateful

How to cultivate gratitude in the midst of hardship.

Posted Nov 23, 2020

Leon Biss/Unsplash
Source: Leon Biss/Unsplash

This guest piece is written by Juanita Rasmus.

“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” —Howard Thurman, Dean Emeritus Boston Chapel1

There are many uncertainties that we are now doubling down on. The changes resulting from a global pandemic—with its long-term and immediate implications, a political quandary, and a social justice uprising—can be a recipe for distress. Changes to our social connections and the mental, emotional, and financial aspects of our well-being can cause us to feel constricted. We can find ourselves in the fight, flight, or freeze responses of the autonomic nervous system. Our task is to stay open to the flow of love, joy, and peace, and how that flow helps us choose gratitude

I am a one on the enneagram, and my life has been short on joy and long on "try harder, work harder, strive, and push." My life until recent years had been scheduled to death with to-dos. My life had little real and lasting joy. I would need to find out how to curate joy, the missing link in my life.

It was clear that in my hounding success, I had not taken the time to be grateful. Now don't get me wrong. I had a sense that I "should" be thankful. Still, I hadn't recognized the connection between cultivating gratitude and the fruit of joy. There was no habit of remembering moments of appreciation or gratitude, and joy just couldn't take root in my life. 

Several years back, an idea came to me around Thanksgiving to invite our staff and congregation to participate in what we named the "Thanksgiving Project." So often you hear the old saying “count your blessings," so we did. A small group of our team worked on recording significant challenges in our lives on a wall in a classroom, using butcher paper and colored sticky notes. We drew a timeline horizontally that started with the oldest person's birth year on our team and left space visually for the upcoming new year.

We saw for ourselves an array of events that spanned the years: The death of parents, divorces, failing grades in school, disastrous jobs, miscarriages, challenging health diagnoses, and even bankruptcy are among the raw materials that make up the human experience. We also saw clearly in the myriad of rainbow-colored sticky notes that these devastating events had been real and significant. 

We had chosen to place the problematic events under the timeline. The events that had seemed favorable and life-giving were then written on sticky notes and placed above our butcher paper timeline. Visually it was all right before us on the now-colorful wall of tragedy and triumph.

We could see that everything that had been deemed "bad" or that we felt had broken us at the time had not remained as devastating. Amazingly, there was often a glimmer of beauty once there had been enough time for reflection and integration. Things that we had believed would be our demise turned out to be our openings, places where wonder and awe crept in to fill our cracked and broken lives with gold, as is the case of the Japanese art form called "Kintsugi."

Kintsugi is the ancient Japanese practice of using lacquer made from tree sap to repair chipped or cracked ceramics. Once the artisan lacquers the crack, the seam that remains is embellished with gold, silver, vermillion, etc. The Kintsugi method of repair after brokenness allows damaged vessels new possibilities. What had once been damage to the pottery became a source of admiration, increased value, and visual appeal. A doomed crack or chip now became a thing of beauty and joy. 

The Examen

"The unexamined life is not worth living." —Socrates2

There is a way of seeing and being that allows us, just as in Kintsugi, to be aware of our own chips and cracks. We, too, can choose creative and beautiful ways of learning to be in the midst of the ugly, the sad, and the seemingly destructive brokenness that is the nature of humanity.

St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits and authored the Spiritual Exercises, which offer a vital and dynamic spirituality system. Ignatius recognized that his busy Jesuits might miss the daily mass or neglect prayer hours. The one spiritual practice they were not to abandon was the Examen.

The Examen invites the needed reflection to live gratefully and fully alive. Before bed, take time to review the day and notice what was life-giving for you. Notice where you could give and receive love or kindness, or where you felt gratitude received or offered a kind word. Remember the moments when your tastebuds came alive, where your nose smelled something delightful, or where the sound of music arrested your attention. Bring to mind the moments you felt alive. Then give thanks for those moments.

Notice the moments in your day where you were not fully alive, perhaps in conflict. Where you held back from being present, where you didn't offer life, or where you were bugged or were closed or constricted. Notice what you notice in those moments, and give thanks for what you recognize.

The beauty of the Examen is that we can choose to do more that provides us with life and supports our being fully alive and less of those things that drain or bug us. As with Dr. Thurman and Socrates, we get to choose joy and gratitude by using the Examen. This practice of recounting our day with gratitude can help promote choices that guide us in curating a life of pleasure and the experience of living our most grateful self.

Juanita Rasmus, used with permission
Source: Juanita Rasmus, used with permission

Indeed, the Examen done daily can help us notice the beauty amidst the cracks and chips that are the human experience, especially now. 2020 has been riddled with quarantine, a global pandemic, political uncertainty, and social justice uprisings. These cracks and chips are the opportunity to choose how we will see these times in our lives and to choose to paint the cracks with gratitude. This is the art of learning to be grateful. 

About the Author: Juanita Campbell Rasmus is a speaker, writer, spiritual director, and contemplative. She copastors the St. John's United Methodist Church in downtown Houston with her husband, Rudy. She's a trained spiritual director and a member of the Renovaré ministry team. She is the author of Learning to Be. Her second book, Forty Days on Being a One: Enneagram Daily Reflections, will be available in May 2021. 

References

1. T. (2012, June 06). Socrates: An unexamined life is not worth living. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.the-philosophy.com/unexamined-life-worth-living-socrates/amp

2. Thurman, H. (1953). A quote from Meditations of the Heart. Retrieved November 23, 2020, from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/323780-whatever-may-be-the-tensions-and-the-stresses-of-a