Walking Our Faith: An imperfect, cobbled-together life of gratitude (column)
September 21, 2018
On Wednesday evening, I rushed home from work to make another pot of soup before I was due at St. Mary's for 5 p.m. Mass and 6 p.m. Formed Bible Study of Acts. I had two different soups already prepared which I'd made for my cooking column this week, but I needed a vegan option, so I needed to make one more.
I stirred together a can of pumpkin, a can of coconut milk, a tablespoon of curry powder and a diced onion quickly sautéed in olive oil. I tasted the soup, but it seemed too thin, so I added another can of pumpkin. Then it was too thick, so I added more coconut milk. Then it needed more curry powder and something else. In went unsweetened coconut flakes and a diced sweet apple. Finally, it felt right.
When I woke on Thursday morning, I lay in bed reflecting with a small bit of chagrin that this hastily thrown together soup turned out to be the most popular that evening. However, the pumpkin coconut soup also reminded me of trying to live a life of gratitude when instead I feel as if I'm incessantly trying to fix my mistakes.
There are times when everything is going so well I feel as if I should have blue birds of happiness trailing me as I skip down the dirt road in my neighborhood, singing, "Zippity Do Da." During these times, thanking God is as easy as breathing and in fact, that's mostly what I do. I constantly whisper, "Thank you, God" as I walk, drive, or cook.
Then come times when I begin to experience the uncertainty of a swim in the ocean, where each wave gently lifts me up and lets me down. It seems fun until I realize I no longer feel the sand beneath my feet. Counting my blessings can feel like a touchstone when one bad thing is resolved as quickly as it came, as if this blessing is surely a sign I will soon be back on solid ground again. That is until the next wave rolls in.
At this point, I begin keeping score. What is the acceptable ratio of blessings to setbacks? Am I still in God's favor? Or do I feel as if I am beginning to drift inexplicably further from shore no matter how hard I seek God's hand to lift me above the waves?
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What about when darkness falls? When bad news abounds, when an unexpected bout of depression arrives and seems to be the only difference between sunny skies and the desolation that enfolds me on every side. In these darkest moments I force myself to count my blessings on my fingers. Literally. I tap my index finger with my thumb and search for one thing to name. "I am thankful for Mom," I say as I drive into town. I tap my middle finger with my thumb, and say, "I am thankful for Henry and Kiki, my Newfoundland dogs." I tap my ring finger, "I am thankful for knitting."
Sometimes, three is all I can manage. But more often than not, I will reach five or seven. The exercise doesn't end my depression, but it stops one aspect of depression that can be particularly devastating.
Rumination is a stream of negative thoughts which play in an endless loop in your mind. From my own experience, I believe ruminating is one of the most dangerous aspects of depression. It is a quicksand which moves from wistful imaginings to self-destructive thoughts so quickly I forget that most of the happy circumstances of my life have not changed since I was humming a happy tune.
The act of physically tapping my fingers and counting my blessings out loud stops the loop of rumination in its tracks. I believe it works for two reasons: 1. it shifts my thoughts in another direction as I take the time to consider and choose my three blessings; 2. it reminds me that there are positive, concrete blessings in my life. This is important because one of the lies of rumination is it magnifies negative thoughts out of proportion, while minimizing the positives.
Last weekend I finally made my annual drive through aspen-lined Boreas Pass to enjoy autumn colors and mountain vistas. I'd made one excuse or another for the last three weeks not to make the drive. The truth was I've been sitting with a moderate bout of depression, which leaves me more inclined to stay home than venture out.
But last Sunday after Mass, I loaded Henry and Kiki into the car and made the drive. It was as beautiful as it has been in each of the three previous years. Afterwards, I shared the pictures on Facebook and told everyone how grateful I was to live here in the mountains. If you have never experienced depression, this drive will seem insignificant, but for me, the drive filled me with gratitude not only for its beauty, but its accomplishment.
Over the years there have been all manner of books written about the importance of gratitude, ascribing all sorts of astounding outcomes to counting our blessings every day. I don't think there is anything magical about it at all. But I do believe that it has on more than one occasion saved my life.
I believe gratitude, the act of naming things we are grateful for, is a form of prayer. It is communication with God, the Creator of our soul. It is us saying, I'm still here, I thank you for this time and place. It is reminding ourselves that no matter how difficult things are in this moment, we can still find joy, love, beauty and a reason to live. It is a steady stream of light which leads from the heart of God to our heart. It is the outstretched hand of love and forgiveness that never wavers and is strong enough to help us rise above the waves.
Suzanne Anderson lives in Breckenridge.
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