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Friday, May 8, 2020

A Gratitude Practice for Challenging Times

image by Alexas Fotos from Pixabay

by Catharine Hannay

Barn's burnt down--now I can see the moon.

Mizuta Masahide


Be grateful in all things.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 

Today I'd like to expand on an approach to gratitude I discussed briefly in a previous post:
The idea is to be grateful in all things, not necessarily for all things... [When] both my mother and my uncle were seriously ill, we weren't at all happy about the challenges we were facing, but we did feel tremendously grateful for the outpouring of love and support from our friends, colleagues, and neighbors. 

The point is to look for the good. To find something positive to focus on rather than sinking into cynicism or despair.

Here are a couple of things I've been feeling grateful for lately:

  • My husband and I have been spending quarantine in a house with a yard, and I acknowledge what a privilege this is (especially after talking to a friend who's been isolated in a studio apartment); and
  • I had to cancel a trip to visit my niece in Europe. That was disappointing, but (unlike many people) my flight refund was fairly straightforward. And it's nice catching up with my niece on Facetime.

Gratitude, Not Platitudes

There is so much going so badly for so many people right now that I want to be very clear about this.  I am not advocating sweeping problems under the rug.

A couple of days ago, Austin Kleon (of Steal Like and Artist fame) posted: 
"For me, yesterday, the breaking point was a hand-painted sign that read “EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY.” 
What f----ing planet are these people living on?  
No, I don’t feel alright! None of us feel alright!! Can't you see what's going on?!?!?... 
NOT everything will be okay BUT SOME THINGS WILL. 
(See: 'Not Everything Will Be OK')

As for me, I've been grieving a series of deaths the past few years. It isn't at all helpful to be handed a platter of platitudes. Trust me, there are situations where it's impossible to "look on the bright side" or "find the silver lining." (Which part of D.E.A.D. did you not understand?)

This isn't about being a Pollyanna... or maybe it is.

"The Glad Game"

The original Pollyanna from the children's book is able to "find something about everything to be glad about," but she isn't endlessly cheerful. 

As Ruth Graham points out in The Atlantic:
Author Eleanor H. Porter, who died in 1920, battled Pollyanna's unsophisticated reputation in her time. "You know I have been made to suffer from the Pollyanna books. I have been placed often in a false light. People have thought that Pollyanna chirped that she was 'glad' at everything," she said in one interview. "I have never believed that we ought to deny discomfort and pain and evil"...
Pollyanna's 'glad game'...  goes beyond simple positive thinking. Pollyanna isn't always cheerful; she cries over disappointments large and small, and initially refuses to play the game when she suffers a major tragedy.

A Choice, not an Imposition

Novelist Anne Tyler said, 
I remember when my husband died[...] I thought, I don't know how I'm going to get through the rest of my life without him. And then I thought, well, okay, but at least right now, I'm drinking this cup of coffee, and it tastes good, and it's a nice sunny morning, and I'll just get through this ... and I do think that most people who lose a wife or a husband stumble across that approach to it.
 (See: 'A Phone Call Changes Everything')

This is a personal choice, not something imposed by other people. 

Imagine how insensitive it would be for someone else to tell Anne Tyler, "That's too bad that your husband died, but you should appreciate your coffee."

I don't think anyone would really go that far, but I do know someone who was given a 'gratitude journal' after being hospitalized for depression. The gift was well-intentioned but unhelpful.


Of course I'm not grateful for COVID-19. I don't think there's anyone in the world who's sadistic enough to be grateful for a global pandemic. On the other hand, it's possible for each of us to find something to be grateful for in the midst of the confusion and suffering. This isn't denial of reality; it's a deliberate choice of where to focus our attention. 

Related Posts about Coping During Quarantine:

You may also be interested in the  Resources for Practicing and Teaching Gratitude, including:

And there are hundreds more posts here at on practicing and teaching mindfulness, compassion, and SEL.

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)