Wear gratitude like a cloak and it will feed every corner of your life.
Last week, December arrived with a super moon and the beginning of Mercury in Retrograde. Winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, is next week. Temperatures here in Chicago finally feel like winter. Skies are gray and snow is on the ground.
We’re deep into the holidays, with three weeks to go before they’re over. This season is always the busiest for psychologists. People are dealing with family dramas, stress, depression, disappointment, demands, and expectations. We grieve those lost to us. The holidays can leave us financially broke, emotionally bereft, and just hoping to survive.
No matter how we feel, we can’t escape… lights strung in trees, Christmas music, bell-ringers. Years ago I had a patient who was having a particularly difficult year. She said every time she went outside she wanted to scream, “Get your Christ out of my face!”
2017 has been a hard year for many people I know, and millions I don’t. There have been horrendous natural disasters here and abroad. At this very moment wild fires rage in California. There have been too many crimes against humanity to even begin to count. Everyone I’m close to is still reeling from last November’s election and the continuing, surreal, disastrous aftermath. And the “#MeToo” movement has triggered memories of long-suppressed abuses in every woman I know, including me.
On a very painful personal note, I was divorced in February. Ending my twenty-year relationship left me with the daunting task of discovering who I am as a woman on my own, with no partner and no kids left at home. And, my last remaining uncle, whom I dearly loved, died in April, leaving me in mourning and feeling truly orphaned. (And with no one left to answer all the questions I still carry about my crazy daddy!)
Together, all the traumatic events of the past year created a tsunami of profound sadness and anxiety from which I’ve only just begun to surface. I haven’t written in months. Every time I tried, I found myself just staring at the blinking curser on the blank page. During times of depression and stress, creative energy is the first to go. Navigating the holidays takes creative energy.
Over this year, I’ve found four practices most helpful for survival, building resilience, and creating happiness. I want to share them with you.
The first is gratitude. Early on, I began a daily gratitude journal in which I listed (at least) three things for which I was grateful… maybe something that happened that day, the name of a loving, supportive friend or family member (there were so many!), or, simply, that I had a warm bed to burrow into for the night. When keeping a gratitude list during tumultuous times, you learn to appreciate all the blessings in your life… and to be on the lookout for what you might otherwise take for granted.
Which leads me to the second practice, mindfulness… the act of being present in your body and your mind and paying attention to what you’re experiencing, feeling, or thinking in the actual moment. Mindful meditation is sitting quietly with what is. Most of us spend our lives in our heads, ruminating over past events or feeling anxious about what the future will bring. Practicing mindfulness can keep us from obsessing. Sometimes, being in the present means sitting with our discomfort instead of escaping in unhealthy ways. Most the time we find things are at least “okay” in the moment. Sometimes, they are even enjoyable… when we’re paying attention. The practice of mindfulness helps us recognize the good things when they occur!
The third practice is compassion. When things are awful, we tend be hard on ourselves. We think we should be doing better, doing more. In times of depression and high stress, we become mired in the chaos and/or lethargy and it’s easy to get caught in a loop of self-loathing. Instead, it’s imperative that we step back and truly look at what we’re going through with the compassion we’d show a friend or loved one. And then give ourselves the same support and self-care we’d suggest for them.
Throughout the year, I learned to be easier on myself. I was careful to make healthy decisions whenever possible. I ate well, exercised regularly, protected my sleep, and spent quality time with family and friends. I showed up for my work… which is my passion and my purpose. I babysat my granddaughter… who is my very heart. I laughed as often as I could. I prayed, meditated, and went to my own therapist.
The last practice, intention, ties them all together. To lead healthy lives we must commit to doing whatever is in our power to make that happen. We must mindfully look for and gratefully recognize the positives in our lives. My intention was to be healthy and happy and to survive the year, and I committed to each and every practice to achieve that goal.
It has been said, “life isn’t a rehearsal.” But it can be a practice. By intentionally practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion, I’ve become more resilient, learned to be fully present even in my darkest hours, and have a constant recognition, sense of awe, and overwhelming gratitude for all my many blessings. I’ve done more than just survive this traumatic year… I’ve found happiness and even joy, in unexpected places.
I wish for you, my readers… my friends, the very same. I’m grateful for you all.