The ability to wake up to another new day — one with which we will surely need to wrestle and reckon, but one that will also teach and transform us … this is the unpromised gift for which to be grateful.

woman in beige sweater standing by brown foliage

Photo by Anton Ponomarenko

Waking up grateful can admittedly be hard, and remaining grateful even harder. I usually awaken expectantly to each new dawn, but in times of great uncertainty, suffering, and loss, a heaviness descends and makes rising into the day more difficult.

The unknown fate of our lives and world can be a heavy weight to bear. Given daily headlines that increasingly defy belief, any open-hearted, compassionate person who tries to find cause for consistent happiness, gratitude, or optimism will be stymied. Indeed, looking to develop a wholly positive attitude in the face of the wrenching circumstances we face does not make sense and will not, alone, offer us relief. The need to acknowledge and face the truth of all that is broken and in need of repair pulls at any tender heart that is awake.

It is in the moments when I am suffering most for the world that I realize I can often become incapacitated, looking for life to attend to me rather than turning myself to attend to life. In these times, I have forgotten that carrying a heavy burden of suffering is not the debt I owe a hurting world, nor the way I best prove my care. I have forgotten that it is exactly the pain of a broken heart combined with my belief in healing that offers me the capacity I need in order to be engaged. I have forgotten that when my eyes fill with wonder and my heart with love or joy, I do not betray my concerns for the world — I nourish my capacity to attend to them.

Gratefulness does not require that I substitute happiness for the richness and teachings of struggle.

Living gratefully supports us to wake up to the gift of a day without denying what is difficult or putting a positive spin on things. Gratefulness does not require that I substitute happiness for the richness and teachings of struggle. It does not ask that I look away from the suffering within and around me in favor of optimism. It does not say that I should have gratitude for everything; it is absurd to imagine that everything in life is worthy of our praise. But gratefulness suggests that everything in life warrants our greatest presence. And presence is precisely what makes us available for perspective and a sense of possibility, the agency of which fuels energy, imagination, and innovation to help us build a more hopeful future.

portrait of older man sitting in nature looking upward

Photo by Mihai Lazăr

Living gratefully offers a merciful path for walking through life with our eyes and hearts wide open. It supports us to attend to the potency of what is life-affirming, beautiful, and moving in our exact moments of brokenheartedness. It invites us to sit with paradox in more fully noticing the magnificence of humanity as we face the mire. It asks us to live with poignancy, holding the concurrent truths that life is both extraordinarily precious and stunningly fleeting. When we open ourselves to this poignancy, we are simply better equipped to navigate the hardships of life with a sense of possibility. Max Lerner’s proclamation that he was ‘neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist’ has long moved me. Gratefulness allows us to be moved toward possibility, even in the midst of outrage, fear, and grief.

When we take something for granted, the enlivening energy of its full presence and possibility is lost. Things become inanimate to us, and we to them. It is deadening. While it is surely tragic to take the gifts of our lives for granted — and gratefulness is the practice of bringing these gifts more alive — it may also be important to look at the ways we can slowly become inured to injustice and tragedy. When we are inured, it is as though we take the existence of grave social ills for granted, in effect saying, “well, that’s just the way it is” or “it’s too entrenched to do anything about.” When the realities of violence, greed, racism, economic instability, or climate change get taken for granted, it is at great peril. They become like chronic pain or smog to which we have become acclimated. Sources of great suffering can become a backdrop that we see and question less. In the stagnation of being taken for granted, the harms in the world and the possibilities for repairing them are more easily overlooked. It can then, sadly, take more and more tragic wake-up calls to wake us up to what matters, and to what we can do about it.

Unlike gratitude and happiness as they are commonly understood, gratefulness is the opposite of a self-satisfied pacifier.

Woman with hand on chin looking out window with contemplative gaze

Photo by Chi Nguyen Phung

Becoming and remaining awake is the antidote to sleepwalking through life. Living gratefully is an intervention in apathy and complacency, both of which attempt to numb us to that which feels beyond our control. Unlike gratitude and happiness as they are commonly understood, gratefulness is the opposite of a self-satisfied pacifier. It keeps us awake and activates our hearts toward greater clarity and courage. Being awake in this way, we become alert to, appreciative of, and alive for the things that matter to us. We attend to life and act on its behalf instead of waiting for life to attend to us. This empowers our ability to embody and act on our core values — deep-seated values such as love. And the world needs a lot of love in action right now.

The ability to wake up to another new day — one with which we will surely need to wrestle and reckon, but one that will also teach and transform us, one we will be able to influence and impact, one in which we can always declare and share love — this is the unpromised gift for which to be grateful. This is the opportunity not to take for granted. Because if we are truly awake, we know that one unpredictable day, we will simply not have the gift of another day — a day such as today, with all of its beauty and pain, opportunity and beckoning possibility.


Perspective
Life is a Gift
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Kristi Nelson

Kristi Nelson

Executive Director

About the author
Kristi Nelson is Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living and the author of Wake Up Grateful: The Transformative Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted. Her life’s work in the non-profit sector has focused on leading, inspiring, and strengthening organizations committed to progressive social and spiritual change. Being a long-time stage IV cancer survivor moves her every day to support others in living and loving with great fullness of heart. Learn more about Kristi here.