Nov 21 • 6M

Gratitude Lists Didn't Work For Me

Here's What Did

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Andrea Gibson
It's common to look around and take inventory of what sucks. This is one poet's quest to uncover what doesn't, and what shifts when we shift our attention.
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cup of hot coffee on a plaid autumn colored red, yellow, blue picnic blanket with a few pinecones

Hello Kind People,

This Thursday, much of the U.S will come together with family and friends to fill their plates with gratitude. That’s the plan anyway. Many will fill their plates with pie and forget the sweetness of thanks. As a formerly ungrateful person, I feel a lot of tenderness for the struggle to actively appreciate our lives.  For decades, my mind was masterful at feeding me the lie that my disappointment was nutritious. It felt healthy to hold a grudge. I genuinely believed my resentments were protecting me from future hurt.

No one wants to admit it, but blame is kind of yummy. If you’ve never in your life felt the yumminess of blame–are you human? Pointing out what’s wrong with our lives, what’s wrong with others, what’s wrong with ourselves even—is a kind of comfort food in that it very often keeps us from feeling the sharper pains of hunger beneath, the grief stored deep in our bellies.

But what we are truly craving can only be found with gratitude, and what taught me to be grateful was not was not what’s sweet about this life, but what’s sour.  

Thursday I will spend the day in thanks, and Friday I will wake up at 6am to drive an hour to the chemo room and won’t leave until the sun begins to set. For 16 months I’ve been navigating a cancer diagnosis and I’ve felt significantly more gratitude during this time than I had at any other point in my life. Why?

For a long long time, I tried to give thanks for the sugar in my life. I imagine anyone who has ever been to therapy or a yoga class was instructed to list what they are grateful for.  There’s always been so much sweetness in my world, the list making was easy as pumpkin pie.  My dogs. My loving partner. My wonderful family. The miracle fact that I make my living as a poet. The warm home I bought with my best friend, (particularly warm because I know nothing about adulting and could never have bought a house on my own. Every month I give my bestie a check with the note “rent” and every month she says, “You know we own the house right? You understand we are paying a mortgage, not rent, right?”)   

I know the gratitude lists work for many, but they never succeeded in making me more grateful. I had no clue as to why that was until this year. Here’s what I’ve come to—when I point to the obviously wonderful aspects of my life as the source of my joy, it predisposes me to believing the challenges in my life are what robs me of my joy. As soon as I began exploring the ways I could be grateful for the hard stuff, I no longer felt like the outer-world was the sole dictator of what was happening in my inner-world. Challenging myself to see how grateful I could be for what once felt impossible to be grateful for has improved my mental health in a way nothing else ever has.

someone writing thank you onto a brown paper sign with watercolors in the background

To give you a sense of how this works—I am grateful for the roof over my head. This is very true. But I am also grateful for the ways I am exposed to the elements of being human. I am grateful for no longer believing in the promise of my safety, as that did nothing for my life but convince me I could take my life for granted. There will always be storms that will shimmy through the shingles to reach me. I am grateful to be meeting the part of me that doesn’t need the weather to be perfect to call it a perfect day.

Another example––I am grateful for my loving partner. This is very true. But I am also grateful for the insights born from where we disagree. I am grateful for what we don’t have in common, and what that taught me about my inclination to think my way was the right way. I am also grateful for our arguments. So much so I wrote a whole poem about it. A snippet: You and I are always going to fight for love. I am always going to drag my heart into the ring, to call you knockout I've been waiting for my whole life. You are always going to trigger me into rifling into my history until every ghost is hunted out.

My therapist says, The only thing in this life we have control over is where we put our attention. With this in mind, when my life feels torn to pieces, I put my attention on what will be mended as a result. When my body is sick, I get curious about what that sickness is also healing. When I’m grieving, I focus on the love that made the grief possible. 

It’s helpful to never lose sight of the fact that the most grateful people on the planet are rarely those who appear to have the most to be grateful for. In a culture that pushes us to focus not on what we can give, but on what we can take, what we tend to take is everything for granted. Taking anything for granted is the quickest path to an unhappy life. Knowing that, may you feed yourself as much gratitude as possible this year.  

And if there’s something you are particularly grateful for right now (sweet or sour) I’d love to read what you have to share in the comments.

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Love, Andrea 🖤

Looking down at black converse shoes and blue jeans surrounded by orange, brown autumn leaves

P.S. Please consider joining me in donating to Indigenous communities in the U.S this week. You can find a list of organizations doing powerful work— here.

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