Graduate Gratitude

melting expectations sjm xmas 1970The other night, I yelled at the cat for sitting on the tissue paper (and then eating it), chasing after the ribbon (and then eating it), and attacking the scraps of wrapping paper (dessert!). I was sitting by a fire with a cup of tea surrounded by gifts and bags and boxes and cards and curly ribbon…in a Christmas kerfuffle.

In this season of hurrying around and family travel and trying to get the stupid wrapping paper to lay flat…well, often I need a reminder to exchange my crazy complainy-pants for some genuine gratitude slacks.

I’m an anxious thing by nature. I’m a worrier and a planner and I would be very pleased indeed if someone could please let me know ahead of time how everything is going to go.

As the years go by, I realize that no amount of planning or worrying is going to guarantee that things will turn out according to my preferences. More and more, I’m dabbling in the practice of planning what I can and letting go of what I can’t.

This works fair-to-middlin’ most days.

But something happens to me the day after Thanksgiving weekend. I have no interest in Black Friday or, heaven help me, shopping on Thanksgiving Day. I deeply enjoy Thanksgiving weekend but then on Monday morning, I feel a tightness in my chest and stomach.

How in the world I’m going to get everything done that needs doing in the next month?

My life is full as it is, and in this time when I would dearly love a little quiet introspection, the holidays pile on layers of complexity and busy-ness. (Of course, I allow the holidays to do this. I don’t have to give gifts and visit family and go to parties but I want to…it just feels like a lot all at once.)

When I find myself in the midst of an embarrassment of riches and yelling at my cat for doing what cats do, I take myself back to gratitude school. If you could use a hit of gratitude in this season, come along for a step-by-step journey.

Elementary Gratitude ~

This is the low-hanging fruit of gratitude: things that are obvious and what most people say when they are asked what they are grateful for. Elementary gratitude is the fundamentals: family, home, friends, food, health, an excellent cup of tea. Find gratitude for the basics first when the complainies kick in and see if things that seem irritating don’t simmer down some.

Collegiate Gratitude ~

After I’ve got the basics covered, I graduate to the next level. Collegiate thankfulness is for the things that we tend to take for granted: clean air and water, a car that goes, well-maintained roads, people who pick up the trash, and food on the grocery store shelves. Appreciating that which we often don’t notice can amp up our gratitude quotient in a hurry. Think about it right now: the room that you’re sitting in, the device on which you are reading, the heating or cooling that is keeping you comfortable, the bathroom you just used, the snack you just ate. It’s really pretty stunning to take it all in.

Graduate Gratitude ~

This is where gratitude gets real. Not unlike graduate school (or so I’ve been told), graduate level gratitude is not for the weak of heart. Here is where I take time to appreciate the things I don’t want, that which I resist, even the things I prayed would not happen. The illness and injury and (stay with me here) even death. The breaks in relationships, the conflict, the suffering, even religious extremism can be a reason to be hopeful (see the OnBeing interview with Reza Aslan ~ the whole piece offers excellent perspective but right around 49 minutes, I heard the most hopeful thing I’d heard all year.)

Love is a necessary precursor to grief. Injury and illness can create deeper appreciation for and connection with each other. Suffering can be the impetus for change. Life is, in part, as sweet and precious as it is because it ends. Graduate gratitude is when I find a way to be grateful even for that which I would never have wished to be.

Investing in advanced gratitude education is an exercise in perspective and on choosing how I want to see my life. The very fact that you are reading this makes you one of the most privileged people on the planet. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have troubles and sadness and hardship. Of course it doesn’t. But it does mean that you can choose to recognize and remember that perspective when your cat is barfing up curly ribbon by the fire.

May there be peace on Earth. May you feel peace in this season and through the new year.

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