Life-long Learning: Gratitude 101

Three and a half weeks ago I saw a “self-help” suggestion on Facebook about gratitude. I don’t believe in “self-help” because I know I don’t change without help from other people and/or God. But because I’m going through yet another late-life metamorphosis and because a very wise physical therapist helped me understand brain function better last year I was open to a challenge. After all it sounded a lot easier than the ice bucket thing we did a few years ago. (I wrote about the brain physiology in a piece about a post hole digger last October, “21-day Attitude Adjustment,” but here’s the gist of what I learned from my PT: She told me that our brains continually replace old neurons with new ones. That process takes 21 days, and that’s where we get that number. In those 21 days we are actually training these new neurons as they grow to reprogram our brains and attitude, and we either train them to be negative or positive.)

The challenge this time was to express gratitude for at least three things every day for 21 days with the promise being that after that spiritual practice the habit of being more grateful would be established. Because it actually helped this old dog learn some new tricks I want to share my experience.

I recorded my gratitude in my journal, and yes some days I had to really work at finding things to be thankful for. The list some days included simple conveniences we take for granted, like a working furnace on a cold winter day and ran the gamut from catching a green light while driving to getting good results from a prostate biopsy. Here’s what I’ve noticed after 25 plus days of this experiment. I am more at peace and more grateful for life in general. It has become a habit for me to look for things to be thankful for in situations where I usually would have gone victim to my circumstances or failure to accomplish some simple task on the first try. For example, when the toilet got stopped up a few days ago instead of throwing up my hands in frustration because my other activities were interrupted I reminded myself to be grateful for indoor plumbing and went about the crappy job of clearing the clog.

Being more positive was also a major factor in my decision to take a sabbatical from all political discourse this week. I am in day 6 of that 7-day sabbatical and finding it refreshing for my soul. (I will definitely continue this sabbatical into Lent in some modified form.) I’m listening to music and books on tape instead of 24/7 political diatribes. I still care deeply about the fate of our country and our planet, but I’ve decided that being angry about things without creative action is not only useless but unhealthy for me and those around me. Instead I chose to sign up to do some volunteer work for a local candidate, a concrete action that supports my values and the democratic process.

As an aside, I need to give a shout out to my wife Diana and another good friend who have been trying to tell me for months that my negative feelings about our current political mess were unhealthy, and as my friend put it “interfering with my walk with God.” I didn’t want to or couldn’t hear those words then. They aren’t the theological language I would use, but they are true; and yes truth is liberating (John 8:32).

For me truth often makes me angry before it sets me free. I don’t take criticism well. I get defensive. But this time I have new ears, at least for now, to hear truth, and I am grateful. I give thanks for those who put up with my negativity and anger and believed in me when I didn’t.

No, this is not a “happily ever after” story. I still get angry at times when things don’t go my way. But I’ve learned in these three and half weeks to be more grateful for second, third and forty-third chances to learn from my mistakes and try again. I’m also grateful for the freedom to share my thoughts and feelings and for those who take time to read my ramblings. “Self-help” is a misnomer. Communal and divine support is what life is about. And I’m here to tell you we are never too old to learn and relearn that lesson.

Thanks be to God.

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