It’s a profound understatement to say there are a multitude of horrible, terrifying, and devastating things happening in the world – in our communities, country, and across the globe. Whether you’re glued to the news or not, the energy of these events affects us all. We likely feel powerless as to what to do – especially for things that are happening far away or are so impossibly overwhelming we don’t even know where to begin.
Also, we may not know what to do in our own lives when things feel out of control, scary, uncertain, and people we love are in trouble. The more we fret, the more exhausted we become, and we think less clearly. When we rehash the bad, the painful, re-telling the same upsetting story over and over, we strengthen the heavy impact it has on us. We add to our own stress.
Every single one of us is programmed to focus on pain, what’s wrong, and to be on the lookout for danger or impending doom – that’s part of human nature that has kept us safe and alive for eons. Scientists call this the negativity bias.
In his blog, Rick Hanson describes it this way - “Your brain is continually looking for bad news. As soon as it finds some, it fixates on it with tunnel vision, fast-tracks it into memory storage, and then reactivates it at the least hint of anything even vaguely similar. But good news gets a kind of neural shrug: “uh, whatever. In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”
The negative experiences stick to us, poke at us, and wear us down, while we ignore, brush off, or don’t even notice positive ones. Sometimes we miss much of what’s “good,” simply because we take it for granted. For instance (and hypothetically speaking, of course! 😉), you might not think about how strong your legs are and how much they do for you until you break your foot. Once you’ve broken that foot and your mobility and independence are affected, it grabs your attention and pulls you into the pit of feeling bad. It can be hard to think about anything else, and you may pile on by judging yourself for having such a stupid accident (hypothetically speaking, again!).
The good news is there are simple and accessible ways to shift our mindset and experience – when we do so, we can better show up for the things that require our energy.
We need to find ways to re-energize ourselves, and one of those ways is to find a broader perspective and remember things are not all or nothing, good or bad. Truly, a wide array of experiences and offerings aany given moment. Yes, there's horror, and yes, there's more than that.
While I’ve learned that I’m not in control of the experiences in my life. I broke my foot, my son died, it’s raining, wars are raging worldwide – these are facts, and obviously facts that vary in intensity and severity. They are things I wish were different, and there's nothing I can do to change them.
And yet, even when times are tough or excruciatingly painful, there is still good in life. We have the ability to find it, notice it, or create it. And, let me be clear, I’m not talking about avoiding, denying, or jumping over the rough stuff through pretending, spiritual bypassing, or looking for the silver lining too soon (or ever) in untenable events. Nor am I suggesting you say affirmations that tell you things are better than they are (unless that works for you. In which case, affirm away!).
But, what is true, is that each and every day, no matter the agony, pain, and heartache, there is also beauty somewhere in life. Whether it’s the red-bellied woodpecker flitting through the trees, crying out to be seen or the cascade of golden leaves floating to the lawn or the dandelion brave enough to peek up through the cement, there’s something beautiful here. A coffee mug given by a dear friend. A photo of a special memory. The scent of a pumpkin chai candle. Beauty does not have to be big or bold, but it does long to be seen, witnessed, savored.
In her beautiful book for navigating tough times, Keep Moving, Maggie Smith speaks of the way she and her children delight in sharing “beauty emergencies” – those things that have to be seen right away, before they’re gone. If one of them sees a spectacular sunset or a dinosaur in the clouds, they’ll call out to the others, “Beauty emergency!” so they can cherish it together and no one misses out. What a sweet way to be on alert for something wonderful. Maybe all emergencies aren’t bad.
Life has been very chaotic for us over the past 14 years with my son’s struggles with substance use and other mental health challenges. So much despair. So much fear. Times adding up to months of lost connection and opportunities over the years. It would have been easy for me to have been all-consumed with all that was bad, scary, unknown. In the deep grief since his physical passing, it’s easy to cry endlessly and think of nothing other than how much I miss him. But even with all the pain and suffering, there is also much to be grateful for.
That we had 29 years with him, I am grateful for. That I got to be his mom. For the happy and hopeful moments that were scattered in there, I am grateful. The small things like a hug or a deep conversation – those were always a gift. Because I knew how precarious his life and our time together was, I learned to cherish precious moments along the way. And when I was too upset with him to find gratitude within that relationship, I opened my heart to the fullness of life. A delicious meal, a warm home, fresh water and air, or a friend who’d let me vent were things I could be grateful for.
Taking time to pause and open my heart to beauty and gratitude has changed my experience of life – the way I feel about and within life. For over a decade I have had an intentional gratitude practice. Usually that means in the evening taking some time to reflect on the day and list things that I am grateful for, things I’ve noticed throughout the day, and share it on Facebook. I’m not sure how this practice started, but it has become a daily ritual that strengthens me; sharing with others fills me up.
On particularly hard mornings, I’ve taken a little time while still in bed, reflecting on what I’m grateful for; this practice helps me enter the day. Somehow something inside of me softens as I remember and acknowledge beautiful bits of life. The other day I sat on our deck and softly offered verbal thanks for the people who’ve shown up to walk through this chapter of life with me; taking just a few minutes to acknowledge long-standing friendships and new people who are coming into my circle – feeling them in my heart as I pictured each one. These are some of the ways I’ve taken time to intentionally reflect and feel into gratitude.
I also look for beauty each day and share pictures on Facebook as well. “Today’s beauty” posts seem to offer a welcome and different vibe to this platform. I like sharing sunsets, cloud formations, leaves, trees, and flowers with people. I love rippling beauty into a dark and ugly time and a space that is too often contentious.
The more I practice gratitude and look for beauty, the more I find myself noticing throughout the day. The more I notice things I appreciate, the less I dwell on all that’s wrong. This isn’t a magic formula or an exercise to check off a list, but rather a way to open my heart and spirit to all of life. Gratitude lives alongside grief in my mind and heart, woven together, inseparable. After my dear friend, Mary, passed away, I wrote a bit about this in “Good Grief, Gratitude, and Grace.” I was absolutely devastated to have lost the one person in my life who always made me laugh and who willingly opened her heart to all of me. There was nothing I had to hide from Mary. Who would I turn to now? And yet, gratitude and grace were there too. It’s been the same since my son, Nate, died; this crushing loss has dropped me to my knees and isolated me more than any loss in my life and it lives inside my heart right along with beauty, grace, and gratitude.
Life will bring what life will bring. How we meet it is up to us. I’m in for the full human experience, so I don’t shy away from the depths of grief and sadness. But I’m also always on the hunt for beauty and gratitude. Slowing down enough to feel gratitude seep through the cells of my being, breathing it in, allowing it to permeate the deep dark places softens my heart, welcomes the tears, and expands my capacity for living fully. Savoring beauty often takes my breath away, filling me with wonder and awe.
Beauty and gratitude help us to see and think about more than all that’s wrong with the world, all that’s hard or painful in our lives. They remind us that life is full of a vast variety of people, things, and experiences. We’re not trying to cancel out or deny anything; we’re adding in more of what we might have been missing. Where we choose to focus our attention affects us.
“When you do nothing, you feel overwhelmed and powerless. But when you get involved, you feel the sense of hope and accomplishment that comes from knowing you are working to make things better.” Maya Angelou
Today I invite you to join me in this quest to find moments of beauty and gratitude. Let’s try it right now. Wherever you are, whether it’s on the subway or in the most peaceful bedroom sanctuary, look around. What do you see that’s beautiful? Take it in – the colors, shapes, texture, scent. Allow its beauty to lift a smile. As you sit here, close your eyes and feel into one thing you’re grateful for, no matter how big or small. Experience what it feels like to fully appreciate something. Breathe in the feeling of gratitude and allow it to flow through your cells. What do you notice?
Take your time and take in as much beauty and gratitude as you like, and then throughout your day be on the lookout for more. Give thanks. Appreciate what you find. Over time, you may just find your experience of life shifting. Please share your experience with us here!