Gratitude for How Things Happen
By Heather L. Melton, staff officer for the United Thank Offering
We often say in UTO to give thanks for when a good thing happens in your life; notice the presence of the Holy Spirit in the moment and make a thank offering. This advice is asking us to pause and pay attention, because as humans we often get so bogged down in all the negative and painful things we can miss the good things. So if you’ve mastered this step of noticing the good things, I want to invite you to join me in trying something new: giving thanks for how things happen to get us to the point of the good thing.
In August, I read the book “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., and Amelia Nagoski, D.M.A. It’s a really good book, and I highly recommend it, but at the very end there is a section on how gratitude is a great tool to help interrupt stress. They outline two ways in particular — gratitude for who you have in your life and gratitude for how things happen. For me, the latter tool was a new idea and is proving to be a really useful one that I’m trying out, so I want to share it with you.
Gratitude for how things happen asks us to pick one event we were grateful for during the day and dissect it a bit through journaling. This is like taking that moment when you noticed the good thing and then backing into it to see all the work that went into to bringing that good thing to fruition. They suggest the following steps:
- Give the event a title in your journal. This can be as simple as what you noticed and gave thanks for earlier in the day.
- Write down a detailed account of the event, from start to finish. Notice who was part of the event, what they did or said (including you), and how they contributed.
- Describe your feelings as you go and then your feelings upon reflecting on the event.
- Explain how the event came to be — what came together in your life to make this event happen?
- Make sure to not let the negative thoughts overwhelm the process; keep your attention on the things you were grateful for (p. 210).
I then add the step of going back through with a highlighter and marking names of people or small moments for which I was especially grateful. I also like to note if the event could have happened without the stress or struggle. For me, this is the learning part — often moments of profound gratitude are born out of stress and struggle.
Let me share an example, in the hopes of inspiring you to join me. A few weekends ago I was making bread. I had waited around a bit longer than I should have to get started, and I blasted through the recipe. I used the “quicker” method of measuring cups instead of weighing ingredients. When the dough was finished it was in the bowl like a rock. I mentioned to my husband that I thought the dough was wrong (he bakes more bread than I do) and that I was really frustrated. He tried to save the dough while I worked on something else. When I later looked at the dough, I realized it was probably just ruined and I didn’t have the time to wait and see. So I threw it out and grumbled as I started to make a new one. I am certain that this moment will likely be included in the long list of items for my husband’s sainthood.
As I got the mixer ready to go again, one of my daughters came in and asked if I would teach her how to make bread. She loves bread so much she will literally eat a loaf herself. And although I was frustrated, stressed and angry with myself for trying to take shortcuts, I said yes. And slowly, as I walked her through the process step by step, I felt myself calm down. I started to enjoy the project instead of just trying to get it finished.
When it was time to braid the dough, I decided for the first time to weigh it out and make sure each rope was the same (turns out this totally makes the process easier, and, as my husband lovingly pointed out, I’m no Paul Hollywood, so eye-balling dough weights is a bit out of my league). We ended up with two beautiful, delicious loaves of bread. My daughter was beyond proud of herself, and I went from resentfulness to a profound place of gratitude.
I share this story because if I had simply done the noticing work, I would have just given thanks for beautiful bread and a nice dinner. Instead, by writing it all out and highlighting, I could notice there was a lot more to be thankful for, including my husband, who tried to help me when I was cranky and made me laugh by comparing me to Paul Hollywood (who I think is amazing), and my daughter, who simply wanted to learn. Had I not written it out, I would not have noticed them. I would also have missed that I showed up as a better version of myself on the second attempt. I would have missed that this story wasn’t about a loaf of bread at all, but about how much my family loves me and I love them. (While not interested in baking bread, the other daughter was full of praise and compliments and love with every bite she took; it really does my heart good to feed my family in ways that brings about enthusiasm and praise.) There is so much that happened beyond baking bread that is important here. God showed up in so many ways, and all of that would have been lost if I hadn’t taken the time to notice and give thanks for the ways things happened.
I am now trying to do this every day, to just take a moment and write it out, to remember the good things that happened. So far, this practice means that I’ve been able to more quickly interrupt the stress that I feel being a mom of small people during a pandemic, by getting curious about how to unravel the stress during it instead of at the end of it. Can you think of an event that you gave thanks for that if you could walk back through was actually a series of moments of gratitude and struggle all jumbled together? My guess is that you probably have one or two of these a day like I do.
I offer all of this because I know many of you are carrying a great deal of stress right now, whether it be from the pandemic, economic situations, work, family, caregiving, and more. While I do not think gratitude will solve all of these things, nor do I recommend “silver-lining” it (https://brenebrown.com/videos/rsa-short-empathy/), I do recommend digging into it to see that there are gifts in the midst of it. Seeing these tiny glimmers of light in the struggle remind us that we are not alone in our stress nor has God abandoned us to it. These glimmers of light are a reminder that we are letters of love from God to a broken and hurting world and so are the people around us. We truly are made for each other, and when we stop to notice the way things happen, we are often reminded of the profound gift of love that God gives us, through each other, through the movement of time and through the hope, grace and love planted in our hearts.