Practicing gratitude at Christmas
It’s been a trying year, devastating for some, so as Christmas approaches, how can we end it with gratitude, whatever our circumstances? I confess that I don’t react well when I’m in an emotionally bleak or dissatisfied place and friends suggest that I write a gratitude list or think of things to be thankful for. But that’s my first response. Then I calm down, take the suggestion on board, take out pen and paper and do exactly that. I write down 10 things I’m grateful for and most of the time, it works. Something shifts. And I often end up with many more than 10 things on my list.
At the end of 2019, I created a workbook entitled ‘Create Your 2020 Vision.’ In it, I encouraged people to identify the desires of their heart, the steps they could take to achieve them, any obstacles in their path and ways to overcome them. I imagine nobody listed ‘global pandemic’ as a potential obstacle.
I am prone to ‘compare and despair’ and to judging people’s insides from what I see on the outside. When people suggest I practice gratitude, I first have to coax my mind away from thoughts that life isn’t fair or others have it better than me.
This feeling of lack gets worse during the festive season, when I tend to assume that the majority of the population is enjoying similar scenes to the ones I see in TV adverts for supermarkets, stuffing or slippers – long tables stacked with steaming dishes and lined with countless family members from numerous generations.
In short, large, happy, functional families.
I know for a fact this picture isn’t true for everyone. I know this from my clients, many of whom are single without children and who find that Christmas shines an unwelcome spotlight on their aloneness. But it’s far too easy to believe that everyone’s festive season is worthy of a Facebook photo collage.
And although coronavirus is changing the way we gather with others at Christmas in many parts of the world, it’s also easy to feel left out by the language of government, with its emphasis on families and households. What if your household is limited to one? What if your family is thousands of miles away? What if you don’t get on well with your parents or siblings? What if you wanted children and couldn’t have them?
Christmas can be tough at the best of times. Christmas during coronavirus may be even more challenging for some, especially if we can’t socialise in groups or if dating has been difficult and might remain so for a while.
So I absolutely understand if what I’m going to suggest makes you want to throw your computer or smartphone out of the window. As I mentioned, my initial response to the suggestion of a gratitude practice when I’m feeling down is to wonder, is that the best advice you can come up with?
Gratitude helps. It’s a circuit breaker. It changes our state of mind. It stops us from comparing our lives to the Instagram version of other people’s lives and it ends the spiral downwards into depression and despair. It connects us with something greater. It connects us with our humanity. It connects us with God. And it helps us to find unexpected joy in unexpected places.
So no matter how this extraordinary year is ending for you, can you actively seek out things to be grateful for this festive season?
For me, it starts small. It starts with noticing the birds and the breeze, with appreciating the sunshine or the snow and with giving thanks for my body and health, no matter my aches and pains.
And then it builds to giving thanks for all the people in my life, rather than noticing the ones who might be missing. I give thanks for the family members I do have and for many wonderful friends.
I can even find a way to be grateful for my experience of Covid-19. Ten months on from contracting the virus and still with intermittent chest pains, I can be thankful for how much this period has taught me about slowing down, about self-care and about prioritising the important things in life. (Although I write this knowing that you may have had a much more devastating experience of Covid-19, involving your own health or the lives of loved ones).
As 2020 comes to an end, I can also give thanks for the opportunity to start again, for a fresh slate, for a new year and for the promise of a vaccine that may enable the world to return to a semblance of normality and that may allow us all to hug each other again.
So today, right now or this evening before bed, can you take out your notebook and write your gratitude list?
I hope you find many more than 10 things to write down, but 10 is plenty and five is enough too.