One evening when I was about six, my “recovering-Catholic” (his term) dad taught me the Lord’s Prayer. I recited the meaningless-to-me words as an obligatory chant nightly for the next year or so. Then, when my Lutheran-raised mom later taught me the delightful childhood poetry that is “Now I lay Me Down to Sleep,” I dutifully added to my prayer ritual a plea for the lord to keep my soul should I die in my sleep. I had no idea what any of it meant. (Thank God.) But I had established an unwavering habit of nightly prayer at a developmental stage when my neurology was still silly-putty-plastic.
Then, when I was about 10, my mom started bringing my sister and I to services at a different kind of church. It was strict in its doctrine, and looking back I could find plenty of beliefs to roll my eyes at, but instead I will share the absolutely life-altering gift that that church bestowed upon me: A conversational, open-ended, unscripted, and gratitude-based prayer format.
I soon found myself altering my already-established nightly routine of whispering randomness in my mind: Instead of asking for “thy kingdom” and “thy will” and “soul-keeping” to ensue, I began thanking God, in my own words, and full of pauses and contemplation, for all of my blessings. This was something I did every single night, whether I was at a sleepover, falling asleep in the car on a road trip, or camping out on the trampoline in my yard. It was a compulsive habit, solidified into a malleable brain at a young age and behaviorally-reinforced by positive benefits I didn’t even realize were occurring.
At the beginning, I was basic-level appreciative. I’d thank God for stuff like “my family” and “my pool” and “lots of toys” and “food.” Eventually, I began to notice and contemplate the more nuanced positive side of my life: the fact that we have eyesight, fucking eyesight! And we see in color and detect facial expressions and danger and love- with our EYES. And we have two of them so depth perception and peripheral vision and we can still see even if one is damaged! Oh my GOD, VISION, and isn’t that amazing? And also God, you could have given us just only one rotton bland taste to our food, like everything could have tasted like my basement smells, but you didn’t DO that! You gave us ICE CREAM and STRAWBERRIES! And also, God, thank you for my mom’s heart. That time when I tore up her address book for an art project, she yelled at me a little but she was also proud of what I made and bought me a whole bunch of tape to use as a creative outlet. Thank you, God, for giving me someone in my life who sees me through those adoring eyes. And thank you for rain! Getting water for our plants and food and to drink, from this perfect natural cycle all over the globe- THANK you for that.
There’s something people never tell you when they spout off the benefits of gratitude: Practicing gratitude at a time when you’re upset is just plain invalidating and dismissive. Practicing real, deep, contemplative gratitude every day, as a ritual, can make the upsetting things register in your actual brain as legitimately less signifiant.
My mom, to this day, recalls my reaction to the rain on my (outdoor) high school graduation ceremony: So what. Someone somewhere is getting their food and water. OMG I am graduating! She was apparently surprised that my flat, stringy hair, watermarked satin sash, and muddy high heels weren’t registering in my mind as meaningful whatsoever.
But practicing a grateful perspective in the “mist” of shitty weather, when you’ve trained your brain to orient itself to the good stuff, is pretty automatic. What’s harder, even after decades of practiced positivity and perspective, is appreciating people and even ourselves, when annoying or disappointing behaviors are raining down on us.
A couple years ago, I couldn’t go to an out-of-town wedding with my husband because something had come up for my in-laws which made them unable to babysit at the last minute. My friend scrunched up her nose and called my in-law’s cancellation annoying. “Meh,” I told my friend, “They have a life. Whatevs. They’ve literally dropped plans and driven five hours each way dozens of times to help us out and I can’t even begin to tell you about their over-the-top generosity with paying for stuff and food and gifts and help and time. It would pretty unfair of me to make this cancellation like a ‘meaningful thing’ about them.” I said all this, without much thought, because I had spent time lingering mentally, actually dwelling on my appreciation for my in laws. My perspective was not a “forced gratitude” exercise initiated in the moment to quell my frustration. It was what I really believed based on repeated, meaningful brain-training.
It is similar with my small house with the avacado bathtub and stained carpet in the basement: I love that house because of how often I think about the huge yard and cabinet space and how easy it is to clean it and how we have piano-lesson-and-vacation money leftover after our mortgage. I love it because I think about loving it every night in my ritual “prayers” and that extends to my admiring the beautiful built-ins while walking though the brown-carpeted living room.
And to return to the application of this concept to relationships, I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons that I legitimately admire my husband in a manner that could easily be described as worship is that I have deliberately thanked the universe (and him) for the specific things I appreciate about him tens of thousands of times. Have I brainwashed myself into valuing his ability to converse about self-help books and pull a comfortable paycheck at a stressful job to the extent that his inability to multitask and piles of clothes all over the bedroom floor have become legitimately inconsequential? Maybe. Does he more readily DO certain things because he enjoys feeling like a winner with me? Maybe.
A couple years back, a family member teased my husband about his falling asleep for an afternoon on the couch while I took care of our baby, toddler, and preschooler. “Aren’t you mad at his lazy bones?” She asked me while kicking the couch he was on. I had thanked God and the universe so many times for all the evenings my husband returned from a 12 hour day of work somehow in a pleasant mood; I had thanked the universe so many times for his willingness to bring up laundry or load the dishwasher instead of getting defensive when I simply asked him nicely; I had even thanked God for the fact that my husband never held it against me or made me feel bad when I needed a break or slept in on the weekends. I had contemplated these realities so many times that my fears of being not considered or supported and my annoyance with my demanding kids and even my annoyance that he had his shoes on the couch, were less salient in my brain, weren’t even tangible enough to immediately access. So in that moment, my response wasn’t some forced exercise or cognition to quell any momentary frustration; It was heartfelt: He’s totally not a lazy bones and he deserves break sometimes too.
And the same brainwashing is even possible for ourselves. If we take time each day to appreciate the nuances of our own efforts, values, tiny victories, and personal growth trajectories, to acknowledge sources of pride and self-love, suddenly the mistakes and pitfalls are mere learning experiences instead of sources of anger, loathing, and shame.
Yes, the daily ritual of intentional, thoughtful gratitude is life-transforming. But only when it’s a forced habit, not an isolated “exercise” applied after-the-fact.
That’s all for now; from the therapist who would like to emphasize that there are times when she hates her house and her husband, but those times are honestly fleeting and never actually meaningful. Because of the power of forced, habitual gratitude. For real.