A turning point came for me when I realized that I should be truly grateful for difficult days. This occurred when I was reading a book of poems by Mary Oliver… In her poem “The Uses of Sorrow,” the author is given a “box full of darkness.” Only much later does she understand that the darkness, too, is “a gift.”
Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.
In January 2012, I received a letter from a good friend who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.
For years, we each worked at the University of New Hampshire, where we served on the faculty, Mary Jane in family studies and I in psychology.
Our friendship deepened when a dean asked us to co-direct the Child Study and Development Center, a school for young children similar to Smith College’s own early childhood center at Fort Hill. Mary Jane took the lead on pedagogy, while I took the lead in matters of child development.
We complemented each other perfectly.
Holding Mary Jane’s letter, I wondered why she had chosen to write to me when we usually communicated via emails, texts and phone calls. It wasn’t my birthday, and Christmas had just passed.
Inside the envelope was a small notecard with a blue seashell at the top. Her note began, “Hey Partner.” (This is how Mary Jane and I always address each other. I’m not sure when we started doing so, but I love this term of endearment we reserve for each other.)
I felt honored by her words. It isn’t often that a friend really shares just how much you mean to her… Then I remember thinking, what is “work on gratitude”?
Her letter followed:
“My recent work on gratitude includes periodic notes to those for whom I feel so fortunate to have in my life. You are at the top of my list—even though our shared time is so rare. I never feel that the time lapses have whittled away one ounce of love and admiration I feel for you. When we are together, I instantly feel a sense of grounding; I feel important; I feel loved. Thank you for continuing to make the effort to stay connected. I am so grateful to call you ‘my soul sister’—and to feel it.”
I felt honored by her words. It isn’t often that a friend really shares just how much you mean to her.
Then I remember thinking, what is “work on gratitude”?
When I called Mary Jane that day to thank her for her note, I asked her to describe what she meant because I wanted to hear it in her words. She told me that she had decided to spend some time every day expressing her gratitude. She wanted to make it a practice.
We all choose activities to practice with the goal of developing skills. We might practice a sport, a musical instrument, photography or cooking. And, of course, those of us who are religious adopt practices for our spiritual development—for example, prayer, meditation, fasting and chanting.
I am reminded of something Alice Walker once said: “Thank you is the best prayer that anyone could say.”
Perhaps Mary Jane’s goal was spiritual, but she described her practice more as a roadmap for living. She said that she was constructing a world full of what is here and good, rather than what was missing in her life. Further, she told me that this new framing was leading to a more joyful existence.
After our phone call, I decided that I would begin to practice daily gratitude.
That evening, right before bed, I said to my husband, Bill, let’s think about what we are grateful for. In those early days of our gratitude practice, we began most nights in the same way: We are grateful for our four children and for our marriage, which sustains us.
It’s hardly surprising that we started with family, the source of the greatest love for so many of us.
Our list of people quickly grew to other members of our family, our friends and even strangers.
New opportunities to connect with others suddenly appeared everywhere… Even on very difficult days, I would find something for which to be grateful.
I remember feeling grateful for a simple conversation I had with a clerk in a supermarket who looked at my groceries and remarked, “It looks like you are going to make a special dinner.”
Her smile as she spoke really touched me; I carried my groceries home, happier for our brief conversation.
New opportunities to connect with others suddenly appeared everywhere.
Even on very difficult days, I would find something for which to be grateful.
A while back, on a particularly bad day at work, my husband joked with me, “Well, do you think you can find anything to be grateful for today?”
I smiled as I confessed, “I guess I am grateful for the glass of wine I am drinking now.”
Then I paused and added, “And I know that soon I will be grateful that this day is over.”
That brought a laugh from Bill. I love making him laugh, so that was another good moment in an otherwise very hard day.
A turning point came for me when I realized that I should be truly grateful for difficult days. This occurred when I was reading a book of poems by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets because there is such wisdom in her words. In her poem “The Uses of Sorrow,” the author is given a “box full of darkness.” Only much later does she understand that the darkness, too, is “a gift.”
I pondered over her words and began to reflect on what I already knew to be true from my experience, namely that personal growth had come from some of the hardest events in my life…
…not getting a job I had wanted…
…the end of a marriage…
…my mother’s death.
And what of the smaller events: A harsh remark from a colleague, an angry comment from the driver in the next car, an argument with a loved one.
Could these be gifts, too? Could I use a box full of darkness when presented to me?
The answer is sometimes—when I am my best self. Sometimes when people are unkind, I work hard to take their perspective and to stay even so that we can learn from one another.
This isn’t always possible, but I try before walking away, before gently separating myself from another.
Other times, I give in to anger, because I am human; but I find myself doing this less and less, because anger has less and less to offer me these days.
My practice is a habit of mind; I am grateful to Mary Jane for that.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”