“If you want to change your life, change what you pay attention to,” says one of my favorite writers, Austin Kleon.[i] The Thanksgiving holiday gives us the opportunity to pay attention collectively to what we are thankful for. Thanksgiving automatically puts your attention on what is right, rather than what is wrong.
Once a year is not enough, however, for communities or individuals to practice shifting attention to the many things that are right. Even in this challenging time, every day can give the opportunity to gratefully notice what is working—in the world, in your communities, in your own life. This doesn’t mean ignoring challenges or the suffering of others. Our brains automatically register the negative, however, so it takes extra effort to notice the positive.
I had the chance to experiment with the practice of shifting my attention toward gratitude during a recent extended period of illness. It turned out to be “just” a virus (not COVID-19), but I was ill for two months and exhausted for several weeks after. I was briefly hospitalized. There were several weeks of uncertainty and fears it might be something more serious. Frankly, it was scary.
Early on I was not grateful! I was not paying attention to what was right. For one thing, I got sick the first day of our first vacation away from home in two years, and we had to drive home the very next day. I was going to see my brother in person for the first time in months, and we didn’t make it. I was disappointed, and I felt terrible emotionally and physically. Instead of being grateful, I was unhappy, and I was frustrated every day that I wasn’t getting better.
Paradoxically, as I felt worse, gratitude was easier. I had to let go of work and all my other commitments. None of it mattered because I was in no way able to do it. I could be grateful for my husband’s patient care (and cooking!), library books, and YouTube videos.
When I landed in the hospital, I found myself, surprisingly, even more able to put my attention on what I appreciated. For example, the dedicated staff working under great stress in yet another surge were still able to be kind caretakers. It was a time of real grace. After my discharge, the physician I had a video call with even noticed the icon of St. Teresa of Avila on the wall behind me. We chatted briefly about prayer and meditation as a tool for cultivating health. What a blessing!
Here are some practices that I found helpful through my illness. These can be good ways to get into a grateful and positive frame of mind.
1. Humor. For me, old Carol Burnett sketches were a gift. Watching these gifted comedians crack each other up made me laugh, too. Laughing helped me lighten up about my illness.
2. Connecting with extended family. Through the pandemic, my brother has occasionally sent out a “cousins’ missive” to our first cousins on my mother’s side. I shared with my cousins that I’d been ill and was working to recover. They were glad to know about it, and sent supportive messages and encouragement along the way.
3. Reminding myself and even writing down what I could appreciate about my body and what was working. I could walk, I could eat, I could read. When I got out of the hospital the biggest one was, I’m not in the hospital! I knew my immune system was hard at work.
4. Looking at the sky. Every night after dinner my husband and I sat on the deck and looked up at the sky, noticing the tall trees in our neighborhood, the clouds, the airplane tracks. The sky is always beautiful, and it’s always helped me get perspective. As it gets colder and darker, I’m still stepping outside for a few minutes after dinner to look up and see the big picture.
What ideas do you have for practices to shift your attention to what you can be grateful for, at Thanksgiving and beyond?
Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.
Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash
[i] Kleon, Austin. Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad. New York: Workman Publishing, 2019, p. 118.