On Mother’s Day of the year my husband died, my daughter presented me with a book by Ann Voskamp—One Thousand Gifts. Voskamp’s writing challenged me to draft a gratitude list with the goal of reaching 1,000 things I was thankful for.
But how do you do that? How can you be grateful when all that is precious is slipping away—in our case, our home, all we had worked for against retirement, my live-in mom with Alzheimer’s, and my husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis?
What I learned during that season—after entirely too much whining and self-pity—was this: Even as our home and the people I prized most were no longer mine, there was an abundance of gifts to be grateful for.
Even During Dark Times, There Is Much to Be Grateful For
Things like friends who delivered flowers, and food, and yarn with knitting needles. The sweetness of that slowing-down period, of setting aside to-do lists and simply being with my husband. The Porch Fairy who continued her daily drop-offs that spoke volumes of love (a Porch Fairy is someone who leaves Chai lattes on the front porch so as not to disturb the man in the hospital bed in the living room). I learned to pay closer attention to the goodness in my life, and to count all the ways God loved my husband and me as we traveled those last, heart-rending weeks together.
Widowhood showed up and escorted me from my husband’s hospice room back to a place we called home, a place that had never felt this empty.
Because it had become habit, I continued writing gratitude. I noticed the kindness of others. I didn’t take for granted that my kids, grandkids, and in-laws included me on vacations, holidays, and other events for absolutely no reason at all. I reminded myself that I could still see the Cascades looming large, smell the pine-scented trails, taste the creaminess of gelato, delight in the falling snow, and feel the soft and rough textures of life.
In that Mother’s Day gift-of-a-book, Ann Voskamp wrote:
“I see it now for what this really is, this dare to write down one thousand things that I love. It really is a dare to name all the ways that God loves me. … I must never be deceived by the simplicity of penning His love list. Cheese. Sun. Love. Here.”
In time, widowhood became less about me as I turned my focus outward, loving and encouraging people in small ways. Carrying coffee and muffins for a visit with a newly-widowed friend. Training to provide respite care for hospice patients. Taking my friend’s husband, with early onset Alzheimer’s, for walks and country drives so she could keep appointments and purchase groceries.
And all the while, I persisted in counting what remained instead of what was lost. My health. Girlfriends to hike with. Taste of salty chips and homemade pico de gallo. My ability to push a vacuum cleaner. Road trips. So many alpine lakes to paddle. No enemy planes flying overhead, dropping death. Freedom.
Are We Taking Things for Granted?
I love this thought from Jeff Goins:
“One of the curses of living in such a fast-paced society is that we tend to take things for granted. We overlook everyday blessings, oblivious to the fact that life itself is a gift. And if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves rushing through each day, less and less grateful, which is no way to live.”
Back when I took up Ann Voskamp’s challenge, a friend sent a book with dozens of empty, lined pages. The bicycle on the front cover carried a basket overflowing with flowers. In time, I filled that little journal with 1,000 things I was grateful for.
And then I picked up another empty, lined notebook, this one dressed in pinks and creams with these words on the front cover: “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”
I’m on entry #976 in that gratitude journal, and the next empty book waiting to be filled is a gift from a sister-in-law, titled, A Life of Gratitude. The hardbound book is covered in sunny yellow flowers and filled with the requisite blank pages along with fun writing prompts, like “What are some of your favorite green things?” “Do you have a favorite birthday ritual?” “Who has been your greatest teacher?” “What are your favorite scents?” “What did you find beautiful today?” “What do you appreciate about summer?”
Needless to say, I can’t wait to get started on my third journal of 1,000 things.
Why Gratitude Is Important
So why is gratitude all that important? I can think of three specific reasons, and perhaps you can think of more:
1. Gratitude changes our perspective. Being grateful helps shift our attention from our losses and onto all the goodness that remains in our lives.
2. Gratitude challenges us to live forward. When all we want to do is hunker down—alone and nursing our self-pity after a deep hurt, a profound loss, or a devastating diagnosis—gratitude provides the light for us to move forward out of the dark.
3. Creates an outward focus. Cultivating a grateful heart allows us to focus on the needs of others and what we can do to help alleviate the weight of their hardships. And this, amazingly, replenishes our joy.
Yes, gratitude is that important.
Gratitude provides the light for us to move forward out of the dark.
And so I will keep counting: All the grandkids on one zany FaceTime call. My writer’s critique group. The entertainment of the squirrel shimmying up our bird feeder pole. Food truck cuisine and live music. Sunlight filtering through raspberry bushes.
Theodore Wilder wrote: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
Oh, that my heart would be conscious of all my treasures. Always.
It was Beth Moore who said:
“Grateful people are the loveliest humans on planet Earth. They smile easy, eyes crinkling like they know something the rest of us don’t. They delight easy. They manage to retain a certain playfulness and childlike sense of wonder that make them sparkle like fireflies in a world of hornets.”
We live in a broken world filled with hornets. We carry around broken hearts, and broken bones, and broken homes. But we can be the sparkle to light the way out of the darkness by noticing all there is to be grateful for. Our choice.
Looking for gratitude on my hardest days is a practice that has made me sit up and pay attention to people who are irreplaceable, and to life as it swirls around me. And as I keep filling these empty journals, my heart fills with hope and joy.
Photo by Richard Clyborne of Music Strive
Life’s all about enjoying the little things! Here’s how: