Erin's Journals

Monday, October 26, 2020

Just a thought… Conscience is the dog that can’t bite, but never stops barking. [Proverb]

First of all, thanks for your supportive comments about the new Elder Wisdom podcast we’re embarking on. This could be one of several different projects Rob and I are being considered for and, really, what an unexpected turn of events this is! Like an interviewer for hire, I’m getting the opportunity to talk with different people whose stories inspire me, and hopefully you.

But enough about that. I don’t want to use this journal just to promote things; I’m here to share moments from our lives – yours and mine – and to stay connected. If there’s something ahead that we’re working on that I think will interest you, I’ll be sure to let you know. Deal?

We had an election in BC on Saturday (a day of the week on which I think all elections should be held, so that voters who work Mondays through Fridays are able to go to the polls that day if they so choose).

Watching the seemingly interminable lines in so many towns and cities as citizens hope to vote in the current American election makes me grateful that we have the system we do, even with its imperfections. We have mercifully short election periods and no (obvious) attempts at voter interference, gerrymandering, mail interruption and the like.

While we were miffed at Premier John Horgan’s overtly opportunistic move of calling an election during a pandemic, like his peer in New Brunswick, his gambit paid off handsomely and his NDP got the majority he sought. People who were teed off, as we were, seemingly didn’t take it out on him or his provincial representatives at the polls. Score a big one for Dr. Bonnie Henry, too, there, Mr. Horgan.

Rob and I stood in line for zero minutes to vote in advance, one evening last week. Saturday, our son-in-law worked for BC Elections at our polling station and said turnout was steady but not heavy. While the total number of votes has yet to be counted (mail-in), a million of us had our voices heard before election day. Works for us; now, as long as our government follows suit….

I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a ball of nerves about next Tuesday’s presidential election; many of my fears and questions have probably already crossed your mind, too. We’ve another eight days and maybe this awful chapter in American history will be over. The ripple effects and aftermath will take much longer from which to recover, if ever, but we can hope, for the sake of our neighbours, that the healing starts in 2021 – literally and figuratively.

The other day Rob asked me, “Have you thought about how you’re going to handle it if he isn’t defeated?” and I have no idea. I’ll take my cue from people like John Pavlovitz whom I follow on Twitter @johnpavlovitz and with whose thought-provoking pieces I always find myself nodding along. He’s a spiritual man with a strong moral compass, whose opinions I find in complete harmony with my own.

Like John, I will never understand how people who call themselves God-fearing could support such a deeply immoral, unethical and downright horrible man. All for the sake of their retirement funds? For a court that will support their views on abortion or gun control? Because their daddy and their daddy’s daddy all voted Republican and they will too? It’s just foreign to me.

I’ve voted almost every party that’s run for federal or provincial politics; to grow is to change, to age is to mature and to be a useful part of society is to look at the greater good instead of “what’s in it for me.” Maybe that’s socialism – and that’s okay, too.

I know that I have likely voted for the wrong person in the past and for the wrong reasons. But I always gave my responsibility to vote (and the fight that so many women before me had to wage so that I could mark that ballot) a lot of thought. I never just ticked a box because of race or gender or religion or ’cause it was just what my daddy did. (I’m not sure my father and I have ever voted alike; I know my mom and I have!)

Our government is far from perfect. Don’t get me started on how flawed our health care system is – while superior in many ways – when we can’t even beg to get a family doctor for a young foursome that has just moved here. It’s beyond frustrating: it’s frightening.

We have a lot of improvements to make in a great many areas of how our country and its provinces and territories operate and how they take care of the most vulnerable among us. But I will take our voting system every single time over that of a country whose prime modus operandi seems to be making sure that those whose voices need to be heard are kept quiet and the status quo continues. When someone like Senator Mitch McConnell can continue to hold immense amounts of power and line his fetid pockets for 36 years when his state of Kentucky is ranked fifth poorest in the United States, what does that tell you about the system?

Will that change November 3rd? Not on one day, and probably not in one year. But a “blue wave” could wash clean a lot of the stains of the past and hopefully make for a fresh start. I wouldn’t be in Joe Biden’s shoes (or Kamala Harris’s Converse sneakers) for anything – taking on the problems that have built up, the civility that has further deteriorated for the past four years. All we can do is hope that this time there is no interference from outside forces, the people are heard for a change and the country that is our closest neighbour begins to heal.

In Good We Trust.

Rob WhiteheadMonday, October 26, 2020
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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Just a thought… The best classroom in the world is at the feet of an elderly person. [Andy Rooney]

“Tell me a story.”

Those four words, whether I said them to Rob at night long after he was ready to go to sleep (in the years when he could hear me) or were in my mind as I searched documentaries and biographies late into the night, have steered my soul. It’s why the Calm app and a tiny pillow speaker usher me into sleep nightly with a fairy tale, a train trip through foreign lands or a view of the stars as described by an astronaut. They soothe my soul and spark my spirit.

One of my favourite times is talking weekly with my dad on the phone. As I sit, coffee in hand and iPhone on speaker, during our half-hour talks we cover an entire 24-hour news channel’s topics: latest headlines, weather, sports and, of course, human interest. But I love dad’s own stories most.

When the opportunity arose for me to interview seniors who are in the same COVID-locked-down boat as my dad, my interest was piqued. I was approached by a production company to audition as host/interviewer for Elder Wisdom | Stories from the Green Bench, a podcast for and about seniors.

The guests come from seniors’ residences in Southwestern Ontario; they’re pre-interviewed and then, at an agreed-upon time, they sit with a producer, laptop and microphone in front of them, and from my home studio also with a producer (Rob), laptop and microphone, I get to talk to these men and women.

So far I’ve chatted with a man and woman in their eighties and another gentleman who’s 95. Their stories range from travels and tragedies to inspiration and encouragement. All have the underlying thread of wisdom and advice. There have been a few tears, yes, but the messages are positive – every one of them.

What’s in it for me? Besides having the opportunity to work closely as host/producer with Rob, it’s so much more than a job: it’s a chance to hear stories of people so much like my dad but with widely varying experiences. And I love to ask questions that these people haven’t been asked and hear stories that those close to them have already heard (or perhaps a few will be revelations to their own family members). But it’s just a great joy to connect with the storytellers of our parents’ generation.

What’s in it for you? Ah, THAT is the most important question, as it always was in my radio life, to which this bears a few lovely resemblances: what’s in it for the listener?

I’d love to think you’ll feel you’ve had a chance to sidle up next to our guests as they sit on the virtual Green Bench which is, in reality, an actual place in the Schlegel Villages retirement communities, where someone can sit to let others know they just want to visit, have a talk, or they desire company. A Speaker’s Corner, if you will. Of course, the physical contact is at a bare minimum now, but here – via this podcast – we are bringing these people, their families and even strangers, like you, together.

Our first podcast has launched and and it’s free to listen to; you can find it here. Rob put the music and clips together, edited the interviews and made this half-hour with Doug, a hospitality worker who tells some great stories (including his chat with the Queen Mum) but also gets real about the heartache of his wife of over 50 years being in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I even have a co-host! Lloyd Hetherington is 85 years old and has lived a fascinating life of teaching, travel and ministry through the Salvation Army. He asks some beautiful questions and has a perspective and wisdom that only he can bring to this show.

There will be more podcasts; we’ve done three interviews so far, with three more on the way. I’d love for you to subscribe, listen, share and rate this podcast – Elder Wisdom | Stories from the Green Bench. I think that we can all use a little bit of green bench in our lives these days. And we’ll save you a seat. Thank you!

Rob WhiteheadThursday, October 22, 2020
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Monday, October 19, 2020

Just a thought… I do not believe anyone can be perfectly well, who has a brain and a heart. [Henry Wadsworth Longfellow]

“How are you? I mean, really, how are you?” Do you have anyone in your life who asks you that? Because today I’m asking and have a good reason for it – and maybe some help if you feel you, or that person you love, need it.

This is a hard time of year for a lot of people when Seasonal Affective Disorder kicks in. Some 10% of all Canadians who suffer depression live with SAD (which can also hit in the summer, I’ve learned through reading for this journal). At this time of year, though, the daylight hours are shorter, the weather turns chilly and this year in particular, with COVID numbers rising again, economic stresses continuing and building, and hopes of get-togethers and travel dashed, it’s hard for people to stay positive.

I get that, I really do, and I’ll give you a personal example: on Saturday, what was to be Molly’s 16th birthday, I was hoping to hear that a puppy in Kelowna was going to be coming to us. I found him in an ad, checked with my sister who was going to meet him, and I had a few brief text exchanges with its owner.

But then I didn’t hear a thing either way; I only saw that the ad had been taken down. I’d made the stupid mistake of naming the puppy and imagining it in our lives, of working hard to persuade Rob that we could do this again, and of looking into how to get him from Kelowna to Victoria.

Here’s where I’ll ask you not to write with suggestions; I’m looking through every venue available for the dog that is right for us. Our beloved Molly and her “brother” Pepper were pet store purchases and although there are a million things wrong with that, I know, we were still lucky to find forever fur babies that way. (Mostly they involved me wandering into a store and Rob being ambushed by my sad eyes and a completely adorable puppy.)

As usual, some horrifically rotten apples and practices ruin it for everyone and here we are at the mercy of internet scoundrels, interminable waits or people who don’t have the kindness to let us down easy. Yeah, poor me, I know. We’ll find our new love, but I’m sad as I write this. His name was going to be Otis. And yes, we have another little pup named Colin who, along with his parents and sweet sister Jane, has brightened our lives like a trip to the sun; I take stock of our myriad blessings daily. But I’m being honest with you here too.

Combine COVID, SAD and the depression that is already so much a part of people’s lives (and add the splash of bitters that is the tense and possibly dangerous situation of an election looming for our neighbours to the south), and you have the makings of a tough season. You’ll recall that last Monday here I shared with you an amazing essay on gratitude written by a scientist; the ways to take tragedy and re-examine them in order to frame them differently as you move forward. Your responses to it were overwhelming and positive and I thank you. I stand by every point Dr. Robert Emmons makes.

But there’s a very real possibility that today someone you know is suffering from depression and it’s seasonally related. Perhaps it’s you. So when I happened upon this piece from CNN, I had to share some highlights. The experts quoted are introduced in the full piece, which you can read here.

Please give this a read. Take from it what you need, or pass this along, but just take a moment, won’t you?

Build a tool kit: As you brainstorm an approach to staving off SAD, one way to think ahead is to create an idea bank of your favorite ways to do self-care, be it long morning walks or late-night bubble baths. Physically writing them out is a way of getting away from ever-pervasive screens.

It can be a literal box. As you think of ideas, write them on a slip of paper and throw them in the box.

Wellness piggy bank: Spend some time journaling now, and reflect on the small pleasures around you. This is a mindfulness practice of really leaning into the sensory aspects of our experience, such as capturing in our mind’s eye the beauty of a flower blooming in the backyard, or the aroma of an autumnal-scented candle wafting in the air. 

Or it could be listening to the nostalgic sounds of a favorite band’s music, which allow us to emotionally reenter a previous era of our lives when things seemed less uncertain. Keep track of these moments, and if things feel bleak this winter, reread your list or add to it with more little joys you see.

Seeking light: As you navigate winter, there are small tweaks to your day that can help you get the extra light you need.

That could be taking your coffee by the window in the morning. Put your desk next to a window. Or that could be something simple such as not wearing your sunglasses when outside to fully soak in the sun’s healing rays.

Happy lights: One of the primary treatments for seasonal affective disorder is bright light therapy, which has been described as clinically effective since the 1980s. You can find one that works for you and your budget by searching online for light therapy lamps, which work by emitting full-spectrum light similar to sunlight.

About 20 to 60 minutes of exposure to 10,000 lux of cool-white fluorescent light can be associated with a significant improvement in mood, according to a 2009 study by researchers from the University of Maryland.

Spend a weekend cooking: When you’re up for it, consider cooking a big helping of cozy, hearty soups, packed with nutrition. Give yourself something to eat for times when you don’t feel like doing anything.

Find something to look forward to: With fewer special events, conferences and vacations, every day starts to feel like Blursday. That’s why it’s particularly important to try and still plan something special for Halloween, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, even if a gathering needs to be small, outdoors or physically distant.

This year that could mean setting up a special space outdoors with a space heater or twinkle lights and inviting over just a few close friends. Having things to look forward to is important for regulating your mood.

Find a therapist: One of the best balms for a weary soul is still professional help, and during the pandemic, telehealth services have become more accessible. Receiving counseling online has been shown to be comparable in efficacy to seeing a therapist in person, according to a 2017 systematic review study.

I’ll add one more and I’m not a doctor – haven’t even played one on TV or the radio! Don’t be afraid of prescriptions. They’re not right for everyone, and I’ll tell you that I have tried several over my lifetime so I know whereof I speak. Just find a doctor who will listen, who may even suggest some of the ideas above and then will hopefully point you in the right direction.

Sickness isn’t weakness and, as one of those who do take a pill a day to keep our serotonin levels where they should be, I’ll remind you of the old saw that if you’re diabetic you don’t judge yourself for taking insulin. Depression is real and this year it could be a double or triple dose. Don’t ignore the signs. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. You don’t have to do this alone.

I’ll be back with a Thursday journal to tell you about a project I’m involved in that may just help lighten your spirits a little further. I know it has mine. Busy is good, but being busy doing something you love and which may help others? That’s my favourite kind of busy.

Rob WhiteheadMonday, October 19, 2020
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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Just a thought… The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new. [Socrates]

There are places where you expect to see tears. Churches, for example. Hospitals, hospices and airports are another. But a skating rink? You’ve met me, right?

Since our grandson and granddaughter and their mom and dad arrived at our home in late July, I’ve been in a constant state of pinching myself. Yes, the novelty of seeing a sleeping boy in our Toy Story-decorated guest room has toned down a bit, but we’re still seeking and grabbing shared experiences that we dreamed of, never really hoping to have. Take skating.

Last year during an Ottawa visit, we tried and failed to take Colin onto the ice for the first time. As an avid hockey player (currently playing in goal with other guys his age three times a week here) Rob had always hoped to teach his grandson to skate.

All last winter, the poor kid (Colin, not Rob LOL) had to hang out in a playground while classmates at his school took to the ice once a week; there were apparently no instructors available, so children who didn’t already know how to skate couldn’t take part. We knew he was interested, but the opportunity simply wasn’t there.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to change that! Across the road from Colin’s school is a local community centre which was beautified after winning a $100,000 reno in the Kraft Hockeyville competition in 2015. There are two ice pads and a few times a week, you can book in for a family skate. Last week, Colin got on that beautiful white ice for the first time with Grandude.

How did it go? What does this tell you?

After 80 minutes of going full-tilt (not always, but sometimes literally) he was the last kid to leave the ice, but not before shouting to echo off the empty stands, “I LOVE SKATING!”

As Rob was on the ice with Colin, who eventually would push his plastic aid away and then skate after it, I stood behind the glass taking pictures and video, wiping away my tears. Not only were we fulfilling our dream, as Rob guided Colin along with the help of that boxy thing called a scooter, but we were helping our grandson to try something new – something he took to like a fish to (very stiff) water.

His exuberant experience was one that I wish I’d had as a kid; awkward at anything that even had a hint of athleticism involved, I owned skates, but was far more Bambi than Browning. (If you remember the CHFI TV ad we did with a family skating circles around us, you’ll recall my display of geeky awkwardness!)

It wasn’t until I had a few hours alone on a frozen lake in Jasper in 2006 while Rob and Lauren were off skiing (which was all every bit as idyllic as it sounds) that I was able to feel even the slightest confidence. So much so that when we got home, I bought skates.

They got used once when the ice at our place on Lake Simcoe froze perfectly. And then they got packed up and moved.

Yesterday, inspired by a six-year-old’s enthusiasm, I decided to join my boys on the ice. I was scared stiff and considered booking a chiropractic appointment before we even got into the car, but with Rob at my side, I gradually remembered what few skills I had.

I managed not to fall…and actually enjoyed myself! At one point as we skated hand-in-hand to the rock oldie “Dream Weaver,” I was reminded of being a tween with friends on a Friday night at Trenton Memorial Gardens, awkwardly going around and around – cold, scared and anxious for it to be over.

Yesterday, however, once the early trepidation faded, all I felt was joy. There were no tears this time; just moments that reminded me that sometimes all we have to do is say “yes” when opportunities present themselves. We just don’t know how many chances life is going to give us to do something scary, come out in one piece and say, “That was fun – let’s go again!”

Please enjoy your weekend and I’ll be back with you on Monday. Once again, thanks for being here for our ups and downs. Fortunately, there was none of the latter yesterday!

Rob WhiteheadThursday, October 15, 2020
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Monday, October 12, 2020

Just a thought… Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. [German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer] 

Hello and Happy Monday! I hope that your Thanksgiving weekend is going well or, if you’re reading this on a later date, that you’ve been blessed with leftovers. We still have streamers and balloons up, a lovely reminder of the birthday/Thanksgiving celebration yesterday – a day that was supposed to be spent hosting guests on a riverboat cruise of the Rhine, but which saw us at home with our precious family, with nowhere in the world we would rather be.

I found an article that I just had to share with you today. It’s not only timely but timeless and if you’ll sit with a cup of your favourite comfort and take a moment to read this, I think you’ll be, well, grateful.

Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., is (according to his bio) the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He’s an author and professor of psychology at UC Davis, and founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. So let’s just say he knows whereof he writes.

He wrote a piece that I stumbled across while seeking quotes to use on social media regarding gratitude. Posted in 2013, it set off many bells for these times in which we live today and for our everyday lives pre- and post-COVID. The essay is adapted from this book:

It’s about the distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful; how trials and suffering (reframing the crisis and remembering the bad) can deepen that gratefulness. There are a few small exercises, like confronting one’s own mortality. How to recast gratefully negative moments/events from your past.

I’ll be studying this carefully before making my next keynote speech; in fact, there’s even a video link to an eight minute chat by Dr. Emmons. I was going to cherrypick highlights from this piece for you, but it’s so good that I couldn’t. Instead, I’m going to copy it for you to read here yourself. I promise you it’s worth your time and you may want to copy and share the link. And please feel free to comment on what you’ve read at my Facebook page.

I’ll be back with you on Thursday with some lovely moments from a week of happy tears and marking years, of skating and soaring – and life, never boring! And I promise it won’t all rhyme. Happy Thanksgiving.

How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times

It’s easy to feel grateful when life is good, says Robert Emmons. But when disaster strikes, gratitude is worth the effort.

A decade’s worth of research on gratitude has shown me that when life is going well, gratitude allows us to celebrate and magnify the goodness. But what about when life goes badly? In the midst of the economic maelstrom that has gripped our country, I have often been asked if people can—or even should—feel grateful under such dire circumstances.

My response is that not only will a grateful attitude help—it is essential. In fact, it is precisely under crisis conditions when we have the most to gain by a grateful perspective on life. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In other words, gratitude can help us cope with hard times.
 
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that gratitude will come easily or naturally in a crisis. It’s easy to feel grateful for the good things. No one “feels” grateful that he or she has lost a job or a home or good health or has taken a devastating hit on his or her retirement portfolio.
 
But it is vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are, the way things should be, and the distance between these two points.
 
But being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve—but my research says it is worth the effort.
 
Remember the bad
 
Trials and suffering can actually refine and deepen gratefulness if we allow them to show us not to take things for granted. Our national holiday of gratitude, Thanksgiving, was born and grew out of hard times. The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died from a rough winter and year. It became a national holiday in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War and was moved to its current date in the 1930s following the Depression.
 
Why? Well, when times are good, people take prosperity for granted and begin to believe that they are invulnerable. In times of uncertainty, though, people realize how powerless they are to control their own destiny. If you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.
 
So crisis can make us more grateful—but research says gratitude also helps us cope with crisis. Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals. The contrast between suffering and redemption serves as the basis for one of my tips for practicing gratitude: remember the bad.
 
It works this way: Think of the worst times in your life, your sorrows, your losses, your sadness—and then remember that here you are, able to remember them, that you made it through the worst times of your life, you got through the trauma, you got through the trial, you endured the temptation, you survived the bad relationship, you’re making your way out of the dark. Remember the bad things, then look to see where you are now.
 
This process of remembering how difficult life used to be and how far we have come sets up an explicit contrast that is fertile ground for gratefulness. Our minds think in terms of counterfactuals—mental comparisons we make between the way things are and how things might have been different. Contrasting the present with negative times in the past can make us feel happier (or at least less unhappy) and enhance our overall sense of well-being. This opens the door to coping gratefully.
 
Try this little exercise. First, think about one of the unhappiest events you have experienced. How often do you find yourself thinking about this event today? Does the contrast with the present make you feel grateful and pleased? Do you realize your current life situation is not as bad as it could be? Try to realize and appreciate just how much better your life is now. The point is not to ignore or forget the past but to develop a fruitful frame of reference in the present from which to view experiences and events.
 
There’s another way to foster gratitude: confront your own mortality. In a recent study, researchers asked participants to imagine a scenario where they are trapped in a burning high rise, overcome by smoke, and killed. This resulted in a substantial increase in gratitude levels, as researchers discovered when they compared this group to two control conditions who were not compelled to imagine their own deaths.
 
In these ways, remembering the bad can help us to appreciate the good. As the German theologian and Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy.” We know that gratitude enhances happiness, but why? Gratitude maximizes happiness in multiple ways, and one reason is that it helps us reframe memories of unpleasant events in a way that decreases their unpleasant emotional impact. This implies that grateful coping entails looking for positive consequences of negative events. For example, grateful coping might involve seeing how a stressful event has shaped who we are today and has prompted us to reevaluate what is really important in life.
 
Reframing disaster
 
To say that gratitude is a helpful strategy to handle hurt feelings does not mean that we should try to ignore or deny suffering and pain.
 
The field of positive psychology has at times been criticized for failing to acknowledge the value of negative emotions. Barbara Held of Bowdoin College in Maine, for example, contends that positive psychology has been too negative about negativity and too positive about positivity. To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.
 
So telling people simply to buck up, count their blessings, and remember how much they still have to be grateful for can certainly do much harm. Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
 
A growing body of research has examined how grateful recasting works. In a study conducted at Eastern Washington University, participants were randomly assigned to one of three writing groups that would recall and report on an unpleasant open memory—a loss, a betrayal, victimization, or some other personally upsetting experience. The first group wrote for 20 minutes on issues that were irrelevant to their open memory. The second wrote about their experience pertaining to their open memory.
 
Researchers asked the third group to focus on the positive aspects of a difficult experience—and discover what about it might now make them feel grateful. Results showed that they demonstrated more closure and less unpleasant emotional impact than participants who just wrote about the experience without being prompted to see ways it might be redeemed with gratitude. Participants were never told not to think about the negative aspects of the experience or to deny or ignore the pain. Moreover, participants who found reasons to be grateful demonstrated fewer intrusive memories, such as wondering why it happened, whether it could have been prevented, or if they believed they caused it to happen. Thinking gratefully, this study showed, can help heal troubling memories and in a sense redeem them—a result echoed in many other studies.
 
Some years ago, I asked people with debilitating physical illnesses to compose a narrative concerning a time when they felt a deep sense of gratitude to someone or for something. I asked them to let themselves re-create that experience in their minds so that they could feel the emotions as if they had transported themselves back in time to the event itself. I also had them reflect on what they felt in that situation and how they expressed those feelings. In the face of progressive diseases, people often find life extremely challenging, painful, and frustrating. I wondered whether it would even be possible for them to find anything to be grateful about. For many of them, life revolved around visits to the pain clinic and pharmacy. I would not have been at all surprised if resentment overshadowed gratefulness.
 
As it turned out, most respondents had trouble settling on a specific instance—they simply had so much in their lives that they were grateful for. I was struck by the profound depth of feeling that they conveyed in their essays, and by the apparent life-transforming power of gratitude in many of their lives.
 
It was evident from reading these narrative accounts that (1) gratitude can be an overwhelmingly intense feeling, (2) gratitude for gifts that others easily overlook most can be the most powerful and frequent form of thankfulness, and (3) gratitude can be chosen in spite of one’s situation or circumstances. I was also struck by the redemptive twist that occurred in nearly half of these narratives: out of something bad (suffering, adversity, affliction) came something good (new life or new opportunities) for which the person felt profoundly grateful.
 
If you are troubled by an open memory or a past unpleasant experience, you might consider trying to reframe how you think about it using the language of thankfulness. The unpleasant experiences in our lives don’t have to be of the traumatic variety in order for us to gratefully benefit from them. Whether it is a large or small event, here are some additional questions to ask yourself:
 
      • What lessons did the experience teach me?
      • Can I find ways to be thankful for what happened to me now even though I was not at the time it happened?
      • What ability did the experience draw out of me that surprised me?
      • How am I now more the person I want to be because of it? Have my negative feelings about the experience limited or prevented my ability to feel gratitude in the time since it occurred?
      • Has the experience removed a personal obstacle that previously prevented me from feeling grateful?

Remember, your goal is not to relive the experience but rather to get a new perspective on it. Simply rehearsing an upsetting event makes us feel worse about it. That is why catharsis has rarely been effective. Emotional venting without accompanying insight does not produce change. No amount of writing about the event will help unless you are able to take a fresh, redemptive perspective on it. This is an advantage that grateful people have—and it is a skill that anyone can learn.

 

Rob WhiteheadMonday, October 12, 2020
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