pop culture, spirituality

A Year of Gratitude

New Year’s Eve has always been my least favorite holiday. It’s fictionalized, overrated, and typically miserable. Even my happiest New Year’s Eves have never matched the level of excitement Hollywood portrays. Some are even worse! A co-worker of mine was telling me the real horrors of the famed New Year’s Eve in Times Square in New York City. He and his friends were out in the cold for 12 hours, far away from the stage, in an assigned blocked off area, without easy access to bathrooms. Maybe that’s why all the bystanders are all jumping around on TV…

New Year’s Eve has always been a night of regrets for me. Ever the recovering perfectionist, it’s a night where I remember all I could have done the past year and did not. I’ve made resolutions like losing weight, eating better, saving more money, volunteering more often, and even to be less stressed. But they all failed in various ways.

I wanted 2015 to be different. I wanted to stop living with so much regret. After reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son , and really connecting with his reflections on the elder son’s attitude in Luke 15, I decided I want to begin living with more gratitude.

My 2015 New Year’s resolution was to write a thank you note each month to someone who has influenced my life for the better. Looking back on Gratitude Project 2015, I am so incredibly grateful I decided to grow in gratitude this year. (My only regret is not making it my resolution earlier!)

2015 began regrettably. New Year’s Day, I woke up on the couch of my college roommate’s apartment with a horrible hangover. We three girls had gone to a New Year’s Eve party the night before with loud music, fancy dresses, and unlimited drinks. Those drinks were not sitting well the next morning. I was controllably nauseous, my head was pounding, and I was dizzy.

If my resolution had been to eat better, drink less, exercise more, and anything else, I might had given it up. I had already failed! But fortunately, true to my overachieving self, I had kickstarted my New Year’s resolution in December 2014.

My first thank you note was to my first nurse manager. After a year of travel nursing around the country in 2014, experiencing other managers for better or for worse (mostly worse), I finally understood and appreciated how incredible she was. She took a chance on hiring me as a new graduate. She’d come in on night shift to address patient safety issues and staff concerns. She’d bake for us. She’d always want to hear my side of a patient complaint. And most of all, she gave me advice I hold quite dear: “You can learn something from everyone: you can learn who you want to become more like and who you don’t want to become more like.”

But even on January 1st, hungover me felt like I had already failed! It was January 1st, and overachieving me had not written my thank you card for January.

But I know my manager would have encouraged me to acknowledge I messed up and do better next time. My spiritual director (thank you note #2) would have encouraged me to admit I failed and then try again. So, in a rare moment of self-compassion, I gave myself some wiggle room. I told myself that I could procrastinate writing a card all month, as long as it was in the mail by the last day of the month.

And so, with bumps large and small along the way, Gratitude Project 2015 was in full swing.

I sent thank you notes to my parents, my siblings, new friends, old friends, and mentors. I wrote in gratitude for moments where these dear people taught me compassion, generosity, hospitality, trust, forgiveness, joy, patience, faith, and most of all, showed me authentic love. I wrote of times of my doubts, failings, weaknesses, and otherwise low times where these dear people had helped me, even if they didn’t know it.

I used to think gracious people were naturally gracious. It was just some genetic trait, probably somewhere by the gene that determines hair color. But as I wrote, I began to see in my own life that the wise words of my favorite spiritual writer Henri Nouwen were true:

“In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.”

– Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Gratitude can be learned. As adults, I think we’re tempted to give up learning (and learning a new skill or hobby is often a ditched New Year’s resolution), but we ought to have the attitude of the accomplished Michelangelo who at age 87 said, “I am still learning.”

As my young nephew Sweet Pea began talking more this year, I noticed how early my sister and brother-in-law began to teach him gratitude. He was taught to sign thank you before he could say it. He was encouraged to say thank you before he received what he asked for.

If we can teach young children manners, why can’t we adults teach ourselves gratitude?

Like any learning, learning gratitude was difficult, uncomfortable, and extremely unnatural at first. I was plagued with doubts and resentment. Why should I be grateful when all of other these things are not going well, when things aren’t going as I wanted or planned, when this is wrong, when that isn’t right, when there’s nothing to be grateful for? It just didn’t seem fair. People weren’t grateful for me! Why should I be explicitly grateful and loving to them?

I was simply fixating on every little thing that I perceived to be wrong.  I had the same inner struggle that Nouwen describes when he writes:

“A little criticism makes me angry, and a little rejection makes me depressed. A little praise raises my spirits, and a little success excites me. It takes very little to raise me up or thrust me down. Often I am like a small boat on the ocean, completely at the mercy of its waves.”

– Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Though self-doubt, criticism, contempt, rejection, praise, success, compliments, and comments from others and myself can very much still change, raise, and rock my inner disposition, I have found my little but intentional practice of gratitude has given me a deep inner peace.

I noticed as I wrote each month, gratitude was becoming an ingrained attitude. By explicitly making an effort to acknowledge the many things that others have given me, gratitude was quickly becoming more spontaneous and natural every month.

I’ve noticed that in a very real, concrete way that I have become a more loving person to others (and even myself). I found myself writing additional cards just because I wanted another person to feel appreciated. I visited more of my out-of-town friends and family. I worked harder to keep in contact with friends and family. I chose connection more often than disconnection. I chose to reach out more often than I chose to let someone suffer alone.

Sure, I wasn’t the perfect daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend, co-workers, etc. etc., but I made some great strides in 2015.

I noticed as I intentionally practiced gratitude despite those doubts and resentments, I found I did not take it for granted when people were practicing gratitude towards me.I began to notice and appreciate all the postcards, cards, thank you notes, kind words, sweet text messages, and thoughtful actions from others.As I took notice of others’ gratitude for me, I found I am abundantly loved.

The best thing I found after I concretely practiced gratitude for a year was that I found an abundance of love and gratitude where I used to find a scarcity.

Despite all our monetary wealth, we live in a culture of scarcity. As shame researcher Brené Brown said: “We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.'”

We’re constantly wanting more, more, more because we don’t we think have and are enough. In practicing gratitude, I found I am loved more than enough by those we are in my life, even if they do not love me in the ways I expect, want, or appreciate.

If we’re not creful, our New Year’s resolutions for the year can feed into that scarcity mentality.

  • Do we want to lose weight for our health, or do we want to lose weight because we don’t love our bodies enough the way they are?
  • Do we want to eat better for our health, or do we want to eat better because we don’t love ourselves and our bodies enough in the way we’re eating?
  • Do we want to save more money because we don’t think we have enough, or are we investing with hope in the future?
  • Do we want to volunteer more often because we’re not feeling appreciated enough in our daily work, or do we want to show others authentic appreciation?
  • Do we want to be less stressed because we do not give ourselves enough time to adequately unwind, or do we think we’re going to magically be less stressed without changing some of the stressors in our lives?

Gratitude is the antidote for scarcity. When we practice gratitude, we look at the little we have, and we realize it is enough. In seeing what we have is enough to sustain us, we can begin to appreciate the abundance that is already present in our lives.

As my friends and I began comparing New Year’s Eve plans, I entertained the possibility of  having a New Year’s Eve out on the town again, only with less alcohol. But as I thought all that I have and haven’t done this year and all I want to accomplish next year, I realized I want to spend New Year’s Eve as I spent the year: with gratitude.

One of my friends has an annual tradition in her hometown where her neighborhood families gather on New Year’s Eve and share all the wonderful things that have happened that year. After everyone has shared their joys (no matter what hardships have come), they make predictions for the upcoming year.

She shared this tradition with me as she in utter disbelief told me how her prediction was that she’d start dating someone that year. “Isn’t that hilarious?” she asked me, both of us as single as ever. True to prediction, she started dating her current boyfriend. I would love that group to predict some lottery ticket numbers for me. It’d really help out with the whole saving more money goal.

I like my friend’s tradition because it transformed New Year’s Eve from of night of regretful reminisce to a night of gratitude for the year past and present with exciting anticipation for the year future.

Regardless of how I spend New Year’s Eve, with friends out on the town, with family in sweatpants, even in bed at an early hour, or any of the other ideas Verily suggests, I’m grateful for everything that has happened in 2016 and I’m looking forward for all that is to come in 2016.

Happy New Year! I hope 2016 treats you and yours well. Thank you, dear reader, for your patronage! 🙂

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3 thoughts on “A Year of Gratitude”

    1. Keep writing Marissa. You are wise beyond your years and I look forward to each of your posts. Thanks mom for pointing Marrisa’s blog out to me.

      Like

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