On Gratitude

Recently, I purchased a gratitude journal. It’s a particularly beautiful Easter egg blue with gold lettering and a blue-gold swirl pattern along the spine. The journal leaves space for a list of three items you’re grateful for, just two quick lines for each day.

I bought it because I haven’t been feeling especially grateful lately. I’ve been going through a period of difficulty and growth, my first truly significant one since becoming sick. After being ill, I assumed I’d handle any challenges with the perfect, beatific equanimity of a survivor. Wasn’t that, after all, my silver lining?

Well, as it turns out, no. I’ve been trying to remind myself that if I had told my past self that I’d be here, alive and remarkably well 5+ years later, dealing with all of the difficult and beautiful aspects of being alive, I would have been overjoyed. But it’s hard to shift perspective. Hence, the gratitude journal.

So most days, dutifully, I’ve been chronicling whatever gratitude-inducing thing comes to mind about my day, whether it’s a lunch in the sunshine or a song I adore. According to my journal (which admittedly has a self-interested motive for claiming so), gratitude journaling is good for your mental health and even motivates you to exercise more. Not sure I believe the latter, but it can’t hurt.

(Also, just yesterday as I was finalizing this post, I got a newsletter from a writer I admire so, so much, Suleika Jaouad, author of one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read, Between Two Kingdoms. I would highly recommend this memoir for anyone dealing with illness, has a loved one dealing with illness, or anyone alive, really. And, for those interested in engaging in some sort of creative way with illness, isolation or difficult periods, her newsletter The Isolation Journals is amazing!)

In the spirit of my gratitude journal, I’ve been reflecting on the bigger picture of the changes I’m grateful for after having experienced serious illness in my twenties. Here are a few:

  • The ability to adapt to changing circumstances: The rug can’t really be pulled out from under me, because I no longer hold the illusion that the rug is in fact under me The most shocking things can and do happen. I find myself able to respond to and accept change, even when it’s difficult.
  • A deeper empathy and connection with others: Having been through a difficult experience, I relate and connect more deeply than I once could to others who have been through challenging times. I understand not just theoretically but from cold, hard experience the essential importance of showing up for friends when they’re struggling instead of shying away. And I treasure my family and friends even more from how they showed up for me.
  • Knowledge of my own courage: I totally understand when people don’t like being called courageous for having sought treatment out of necessity. HOWEVER, I’m claiming this one. Having had to consciously and knowingly face a scary situation made me aware of how much I was capable of getting through. And, it never hurts to urge myself on by saying, “You got through transplant. You can get through this.” This works on the truly hard life moments, but it also happens to work for online exercise tapes.

To be clear, there are SO MANY THINGS related to illness that I’m not remotely grateful for, and am in fact quite bitter about. This list is a lot longer than the gratitude list.

But sometimes, especially through life’s inevitable challenges, I’m grateful for these hard-won tools. And, for now, I’ll be out here gratitude journaling…

People living with illness or survivors: How do you approach a “gratitude practice,” if you have one? What are you grateful for? Bitter about? Write me at sarah.anders@5-years-later.com and let me know 🙂

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