“Optimism is really rooted in gratitude. Optimism is sustainable when you keep coming back to gratitude, and what follows from that is acceptance.” These are the words of Michael J. Fox, age 59, who has battled Parkinson’s disease for 30 years.
In an interview with him I heard this week, the talented and now retired actor talked about a dark place he had been in more recently when he fell and shattered his arm. Following his initial reaction to his diagnosis in 1992 when he drank heavily, he had since worked to maintain an upbeat attitude through all his difficulties. But this latest accident was a severe blow that sent him reeling emotionally. What brought him back? Gratitude
I have written about this approach to life before. But in sorting through some materials I have saved over the years, I found an article that expanded my understanding of gratitude. The author of this article, Diana Butler Bass, noted that we misunderstand gratitude as a practice of looking backward, giving thanks for what we have previously experienced. Instead, Butler Bass wrote, gratitude is not about passive reflection, but about building resilience. Further, she conveyed that when we practice being grateful, we create an “upward spiral” of well-being such that we increase the likelihood of functioning well and feeling good in the future.
Gratitude is a habit we can build by “engaging the past more graciously, living more appreciatively now and building thanks into the foundation for our future,” according to Butler Bass. When I myself have begun to slip into some doldrums over disappointment or loss, ranging from minor to catastrophic, counting blessings has rarely failed me.
While we all can identify experiences in our lives that have left us struggling to cope, the antidote is within our capacity to develop. After her termination from her first job out of graduate school, Butler Bass was encouraged by a friend to keep a journal and write down at least one blessing every day. In the beginning she found it hard but eventually began to notice the list of blessings was growing and her own sense of herself and her world was growing more positive along with it.
This practice of journaling has been given the name “gratitude intervention” and has been recommended by psychologists and medical professionals as evidence has mounted that writing about blessings reduces stress and improves moods. Seems a worthy practice whether one is experiencing extreme challenges or a period of calm. If the very idea seems daunting, consider it an experiment, tinker with it a bit. You might be as surprised as Butler Bass and as renewed as Michael J. Fox.
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present to the present…gratefully.”—Maya Angelou