Creativity Lesson: Gratitude
Throughout my entire life, I’ve listened to my dad repeat the refrain, “We have much to be thankful for.” He’d say it at the start of a meal as he prayed over the food. He’d say it when the family was together celebrating a holiday or a birthday, or simply at the end of a long day. For years, those words were just another dad-ism, a phrase heard so often I’d be tempted to dismiss the sentiment and opt for an eye-roll instead.
As I grew up and heard those words spoken on good days, in mundane moments, and even in the midst of sorrow, I began to realize how impactful that regular expression of gratitude really was. Hearing him say, “We have much to be thankful for,” in the midst of his own cancer treatments, and then as my mom passed away ... it wasn’t an attempt to put on a fake smile. Those words were uttered through tears. The loss was real and the pain was raw. Gratitude didn’t replace lament; it often grew out of it. I remember a season of sorrow, yes, but also, surprisingly, joy. True, deep joy as I also learned to say, “I have much to be thankful for.”
Yet over the last few years, I've forgotten the lesson of gratitude that had once seemed so obvious to me. When I started writing this lesson, it quickly became clear how terrible I am at practicing gratitude. Reading articles and watching TED talks about the importance of gratitude was easy. I nodded along in agreement as writers, artists, and researchers discussed the mental and emotional effects of living a grateful life. The stories of lives that changed as people focused on what they have rather than what they lack stirred me. I knew sharing gratitude with others can build and even help heal relationships.
But as I sat down to reflect on what gratitude looks like personally, how it affects me as a mother and influences my creative work, I went blank.
It's not that I couldn’t find things to be thankful for. I could write a list a mile long. But that's just it. I never paused long enough to make gratitude a regular practice beyond reciting an obligatory “thanks.” I couldn't express how gratitude affected me because I’d stopped letting it. Scarcity, fear, and negativity crept in, leaving little room for much else.
Do you ever get stuck in a rut when all you do is compare or make excuses? You see what everyone else is working on—what creative projects they’re doing, what resources they have, how well behaved their kids are, the fact that they seem to do everything—and rather than find inspiration from their lives, you sink into a mindset of scarcity?
I am guilty of this more than I care to admit. It has kept me from creating—whether writing, photographing, cooking, blogging, or whatever else I’ve wanted to do. It has also kept me from playing, laughing, smiling, taking risks, and pouring into relationships. The mindset of scarcity says because I lack x, I have nothing to offer. I’m not really a writer, so no one wants to read my words. I’m struggling with the stage my kids are in right now, so I’m failing as a mother. I’m not really creative, so spending time creating is a waste. I don’t have enough, I’m not good enough, and another day has passed when I didn’t accomplish enough. We make excuses, sometimes out of pain that needs to heal, but often simply out of fear.
We live out of a sense of deficiency because it’s safe.
What we don’t have can’t be taken away.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown writes, “We think not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less. We think if we can beat vulnerability to the punch by imaging loss, we’ll suffer less. We’re wrong. There’s one guarantee: If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times.”
Practicing gratitude may come more easily when our outward circumstances warrant celebration and thanksgiving. Yet it’s just as important—if not even more important—during other times. It doesn’t diminish sorrow or mask true need. In fact, our gratitude practice may even need to begin with lament. Honest cries before God and ourselves may unearth pain we've buried, but it's often in torn up soil that gratitude grows.
I've missed out in life when I haven't stopped to be thankful, or I've focused on what I lack, or I've buried heartache so deeply I've numbed joy in my attempt to numb sorrow. But I’m learning what it means to be grateful. When we live out of gratitude instead of scarcity, we nurture creativity rather than extinguish it. We give rather than hoard. We reach out instead of hide, and we listen without defensiveness. Our fear gives way to courage, and our bitterness turns to joy.
1. Write a letter to someone for whom you’re grateful. Be specific. What was it that they did or said? How did they treat you that was memorable? You could write to someone close to you, like a spouse, child, or parent, or you can choose someone that you may not interact with quite as much, but they have had a positive impact on your life (coworker, mail carrier, barista at the coffee shop you frequent, etc.).
Now to the next, and more important, part of this writing exercise. Many times, we’re grateful for something or someone, but we never have the opportunity—or we simply forget—to tell them. As you write your letter, you reflect on what you’re grateful for, but let’s take it a step further and actually share that gratitude. Deliver your letter of gratitude to the person you wrote about. Better yet, if you are able, read it to them in person (or on the phone if they don’t live nearby).
After you share your letter, take a few moments to reflect. What was the other person’s reaction? How did this exercise make you feel? Did you find it easy, or was it challenging? How did practicing gratitude in this way affect you?
2. Gratitude is closely connected to awe. John Milton said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” When we take time to be in awe of what is around us—nature, art, people, acts of kindness—gratitude naturally flows out of that awe.
Find a place that evokes a sense of awe. It could be an art museum, a hiking trail, a nearby park, or the cozy armchair in the corner of your room that’s surrounded by pictures of friends and family. Write about what you’re in awe of, and in turn, what you are grateful for. What are you feeling? Why is that spot special to you? What do you see that you are grateful for? Are there “everyday epiphanies” you are encountering?
3. Before you practice gratitude, do you first need to practice lament? A lament is an honest, passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Maybe this lesson on gratitude seems completely impossible, and celebrating Thanksgiving feels cruel. Write out your lament. Whether you write it as a prayer, song, poem, letter or any other form, allow yourself to mourn, cry, and grieve if that’s the season you’re in. “Admitting grief over loss does not mean we are ungrateful for God’s provision. Lamenting actually deepens our gratitude, giving us the capacity to be more receptive to the blessings that do come.”—Esther Fleece (No More Faking Fine) Gratitude will come, but often lament must come first.