THE BLOG

Grateful for Gratefulness in Difficult Times

04/16/2015 02:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2015

I have to admit it: there are times in my role as Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living that I feel like an impostor. Some days my commitment to living gratefully seems like lunacy to me. I can feel so overwhelmed by the injustices and suffering that so many people in this world are facing that I question how it makes sense to focus on things to appreciate. I can feel guilty for my comforts. How could anyone read the news headlines of this past week, month, or year, and feel grateful? I fall prey to doubt.

Reconciling this conundrum is a focus of mine almost every day lately. I watch the news and am overcome by images of innocent people dead at the hands of extremism, hatred, and fear. By comparison, my own "battle" with cancer seems like the easy way to almost die; I have the "privilege" of being white and middle-class, with health insurance, access to good medical treatment, a safe place to live, and family and friends who could actively care for me. This is not how it is for many people. I was lucky. I was lucky, and, as importantly, I know it.

It turns out that having this capacity to "know" and name the ways and times that we are lucky, blessed, and/or privileged -- especially in the face of clear injustice and suffering -- is a fundamental practice within grateful living that can make a difference. Grateful living in difficult times can help to build a bridge from despair to empowerment and from grief to engagement. And, importantly, it can keep our hearts open when they want to close.

There are many reasons why it is vital to do the work to remain grateful, and there are practices we can remember if we want to stay mindful in the midst of holding the misery of the world. Here are a few:

  1. Awareness. We need to be grateful for our ability to be awake enough to feel. Broken-heartedness means we are alive. Empathy is a blessing that connects us deeply to others. It is a privilege to have the capacity to be informed, and to sometimes feel outraged. And we are fortunate to be able to notice with open eyes and a cracked-open heart that there are things happening in the world that are unacceptable and tragic. Gratitude for our feelings is a powerful starting point for engagement.
  2. Acknowledgement. We need to take inventory of, and recognize, every gift and good fortune that is ours. If we do not lift these up and count them, if we deny and shame them in the face of the suffering of others, we are not helping those who suffer. We are dismissing the importance of being able to breathe, eat, walk, and love... when there are countless mothers of others who wish their children could do the same. They would not wish us to deny the privileges of being alive. It is WE who can get caught in the belief that to claim our privileges is to separate ourselves from those who do not have them. It is the opposite.
  3. Action. We need to make use of the privileges that we have. If we have money (even a little), and we claim it as something for which to be thankful, we can put it to use...we can share it, we can make it matter. If we have a body that works, we can count ourselves fortunate and put it to use...we can share its ability to get things done, to help others, to offer care. If we have education and/or skills, they are gifts begging to be of use. ANY resource or privilege needs to be acknowledged and appreciated before it can be of service. Only once we know, name, and claim what we have, will we be able to make a difference with it.

Living gratefully every day, we are in touch with the whole exquisite mess of being a part of the human family. We feel our interconnectedness, and the pain and beauty of belonging. Being grateful in difficult times, we can feel into the suffering of others, acknowledge, appreciate and make use of our blessings, and be compelled to act from a place that is engaged, self-responsible, resourced, and connected.

"Faith which does not doubt is dead faith," said Miguel de Unamuno. I agree. Much the same, grateful living which does not struggle to reconcile itself is dead as well. Wrestling with the paradoxes is integral to grateful living practice. In holding grateful living in this most expansive, dynamic, and responsive way, I am reassured that all of us can belong. And I can trust that I belong too... me, and my big heartache for the world.