Strenuous gratitude

Black and white image of hands folded in prayer or clapping.
Chris Guillebeau/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

When I was in college, I knew a little girl aged 4 or 5 who fell ill with a pediatric brain tumor. Don't worry, the story has a happy ending; after successful treatment, she was ultimately healed and today is in college herself.

But at the time, in the immediate wake of her illness, her family started a foundation to raise money for research and to financially assist families of kids battling brain tumors. They named it At Least Kids, inspired by their daughter's natural and persistent reframing of any less-than-ideal situation.

For example: The ice cream shop may have been out of her favorite flavor, but at least she got to enjoy a treat with her family. The family dog may have been old, but at least he still loved snuggling. The brain tumor might have returned, but at least for right now she was alive.

Though many years have now passed—and I've since read reams of articles and books counseling that saying "at least..." to anyone grieving is one of the least effective statements you can offer—the construct refuses to cede its synapse in my own brain. When someone I know gets sick or dies, I consider the length of their lives and the richness therein. When people lose their jobs, I mentally calculate how long their savings might carry them. Or when life goes truly off the rails—with extreme natural disasters, say, or a global pandemic—I grasp at the few straws remaining. Relative health. Relative stability. Relativity itself.

In our current off-the-rails moment, though, I've felt my gratitude becoming strenuous. "Unremittingly and ardently laborious," said the rhythmic OED definition, and I nodded too vigorously when I read it. Finding the upside to much of anything right now is exhausting. My stock thankful phrases sound hollow after five months of repeating them, as if constant recitation will guarantee the blessings continue even if my heart isn't really on board.

Yet gratitude, and the hope and resilience it fosters, requires exactly such repetition. Not in a "fake it 'til you make it" way, but more like weight training, in that your gratitude muscle becomes stronger and more responsive over time. And also like weight training, gratitude can and will sometimes be, well, strenuous.

Viewing "at least" through this lens, I can deploy the words to be an internal mantra rather than an external diminishment of grief. In the context of practicing gratitude, the phrase might help grease the tracks; it requires breath to speak, stillness to articulate, and presence to bridge it to a fact, idea, or sensation that helps my thankfulness catch up.

In these waning days of summer, as sunlight drifts off earlier and humidity drops and I find myself pre-grieving the passage into winter, now is the right time to reboot my gratitude. Let me start small:

I am grateful for late-season peaches over-ripening in our fruit bowl.

I am grateful for eagerly anticipated holds arriving at the library.

I am grateful I heard the cicadas whir in a sonic wave across the backyard last week, unceasing and undulating, their sound its own natural mantra.

At least I can taste.

At least I can see.

At least I am alive to grieve, to listen, to be struck by awe.

Prayer #359: When Life Is Hard (Or, A Companion to When Life is Good)

Our futures are uncertain. Our present times are scary. Life as we know it is fluctuating, while many lives are flat-out ending. Fear preoccupies not only our minds, but our will to hope.

Yet certain moments become like the white tags I've seen tied and fluttering on gratitude trees in distant cities—quiet instances that could be overlooked as charming public art if not for the deep sincerity and anonymous unity of their handwritten messages. For what we write when no one is reading, what we admit when no one is listening, what we profess when no one seems to care, least of all ourselves ... there lies our truth.

Though right now only a fraying string holds me to a fragile branch, still I am attached. May I feel the tug of return in the breath between gusts and recall to what—and to Whom—I am connected.