Two framed posters hanging above the couch in my living room have the words “inhale” and “exhale” scribbled across them. I bought and framed these Etsy prints when I first moved into my apartment a year and some change ago. It was the beginning of a grueling nine months. Working in ministry; working in catering; learning how to be a 24 year old; adjusting less than gracefully to a new family normal after my parents moved across the country; lather, rinse, repeat. Running from my office to my kitchen to make lunch to fold laundry these words seemed to scream out in reminder—don’t forget to breathe! Filled with anxiety and angst and hurt, stuffing myself beneath blankets and cats on the couch they coached me gently—inhale, exhale. In those nine months it was difficult to find moments of solitude, but now I have seemed to inherit an abundance of them. My life has shifted from a season of needing to find little corners of inhaling and exhaling throughout the week to a season almost exclusively marked by quiet and rest.
Inhale, exhale seems to be the thesis of this fall and to be completely honest, it has been a hard adjustment. I really like busy, really like my days to be bursting at the seams with noise, and it is incredibly uncomfortable to learn to sit in stillness. My workload remains heavy, but the majority of my workweek is spent with a newborn in an empty house, a blaring invitation to press the pause button and take a deep breath for 35 hours a week. At the beginning of the fall, when I was still in the adjusting-to-a-new-job-turned-teenage-angst phase, I would make lists of things I was grateful for to try and counteract my unease. I am a deep feeler if there ever was one, and it is hard for me to recognize something as truth if I don’t feel it is true. This makes gratitude lists in the midst of change and transition and fear of failing incredibly challenging, because I don’t feel like being grateful, thank you very much. But day after day I would sit at a dining room table in East Nashville and write down a few things I was grateful for—alongside a few strongly worded prayers—and my heart began to soften. All the sharp edges within me were being sandpapered down and I began to do what this season is intended for—I began to breathe deeply.
I have always been skeptical of trying to conjure up gratitude in the midst of hardship because it can be misused as avoidance. An example I see often is, in an effort to try and avoid sadness or fear I am going to list what I am grateful for so I don’t have to feel my real emotions. This is, quite frankly, bullshit and I am not about circumventing honest feelings in an effort to look more put together and holy. What I am learning, though, is that gratitude and sadness or gratitude and fear are not mutually exclusive. In fact, gratitude is not a feeling at all. It is a heart position, and when it is real and not being used as a distraction it is often hard won. Because it is not a feeling, it is not dependent on our ever-changing emotions and it doesn’t exempt us from our pain. Learning to be grateful is the discipline of observation—stopping to look around and acknowledge the many ways in which God is a God who is with us even in the face of trial.
More and more I am convinced that gratitude is not a natural reaction to our circumstances but a choice to change our language, perspective and attitude towards our circumstances. Like anything else worth having in this life, it is something we have to cultivate and grow through discipline. Planting small seeds in often dry ground. Spending mornings in intentional quiet. Learning to sit in the awkward stillness and jot down half-hearted thanks until they materialize into wholehearted gratitude. Water the soil again and again. Be ok with getting our knees dirty. Wait on that little stem to sprout out of the earth with mud-caked hands and whispered prayers. Thank you for the dirt, thank you for the hard, character building work of gratitude, thank you for entrusting something small and seemingly insignificant to me. It is a muscle we must learn to build—showing up to the gym day after day until we are strong and have acquired a natural routine. It is more than just seasonally appropriate or culturally trendy, it is foundational to our physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Our heart position, whether it is one of fear, unrest, or gratitude, is the lens we see our daily lives through and it will shape our character for the better or worse. I am seeing how essential it is that we choose the latter. As Anne Frank, an expert in the field of gratitude, once said, “think of all the beauty left around you and be happy”.
Because it is Thanksgiving week and you may love practical discipline steps, here are a couple ways I have learned to practice gratitude this fall:
1. Making lists/journaling, obviously. Writing down things that I notice are gifts but I may not feel grateful for at the moment—teaching my heart to recognize and respond to the work of God in my life.
2. Going on walks. I like walking in state park areas and I am so obsessed with the outdoors that this is an easy way for me to practice gratitude. My heart automatically responds to some fresh air. I have also started not bringing anything to listen to if I am going by myself. This helps me stay completely present to what’s happening around me instead of getting lost in music/a podcast.
3. Fasting from social media. Even if it is just a couple hours a day a couple times a week, you need this in your life. Constantly looking at other people’s lives stirs up envy, which stirs up discontentment, which pulls the gratefulness rug out from underneath us. Take some time just being present to your life and not needing to scroll through everyone else’s.
4. Connecting. Be intentional about connecting to yourself and connecting to others. We can get so busy we forget to hear the loneliness in our lives and consequently forget to amend it with connection. Get a cup of coffee with a good friend, invite a group to margaritas and tacos, throw around a baseball with your nephew (my favorite pastime). Bubble up with thankfulness for the best gift in your life—the people you love and are loved by.
5. Make some tea, light a candle and read a book (or something else you really love). Right now I’m working on Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown, who is a freaking genius. Last night I sat in my living room with a candle that smells like a Pacific Northwest forest and read wisdom about the human condition. It was a glorious Sunday evening. Highly recommended.