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FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures


Winter Solstice Sunrise, Chaco Canyon, A. Redsand

A few years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I heard a Diné man say that he was bewildered by the fact that in America we devote a single day to Thanksgiving. He said, "In our tradition, every day is a day for giving thanks." In 12-Step programs people who are feeling depressed about getting clean and sober are often advised to make a list of things they are grateful for. It's called having an "attitude of gratitude," and people are reminded that it is hard to be depressed while you're being grateful.
Around the time I heard that Diné man speaking in a radio interview, I started a daily practice posting three things that I was grateful for on Facebook (I was still on FB then). I hoped that it might catch on and go viral. I thought if it did, it could help to change the world. I do believe that if millions of us are being grateful and sharing our gratitude with others, the world will be transformed. It is not only difficult to be depressed when you're being grateful; it is also difficult to be mean or angry or violent. Think how the world would change, if gratitude helped to keep us from harming ourselves and others.
Many years ago, I read the story of an adopted child who had been severely abused and neglected. He had been left for days in a cellar with only bread and water to eat and drink. Rats were his only companions. Despite the loving care he received in his adoptive family, he remained understandably angry. He was mean to other children. The rest of the time he withdrew from everyone around him. His new mother gave him a calendar and asked him to write in each square one thing he was thankful for. For weeks he wrote nothing. Then one day, he wrote, "Teacher let me." His mother asked what that meant, and he said his teacher had let him pass out the milk in class. His recognition of that one positive event became a turning point for him. It wasn't that nothing positive had happened before, but on that day, he recognized it and was thankful. He began filling each date with something he appreciated, and his relationships with others began to change.
Practicing an attitude of gratitude and going one step further by sharing my gratitude with others had the effect of making me more aware throughout each day of the large and small things I was grateful for. Most of the time I found it was the simple things that I could otherwise easily have taken for granted—warm showers, a delicious breakfast, my truck that worked as soon as I turned the key, a beautiful sunrise, colors, laughter, naps, and rain. Other times it was something I might not be happy about at first—like several hours of insomnia. But I realized I could be honestly thankful for that because, in my tossing and turning, I got an important idea for the book I was writing at the time.
There were times, of course, when I didn't (and still don't) feel grateful for anything, but my a commitment to naming things I was grateful for pushed me to think of things I could be grateful for. In 12-Step programs, this is called "acting as if." Acting as if I am thankful, even when I don't feel thankful, can actually change how I'm feeling. At these times I often think of some of life's most basic gifts—that I'm alive, that my family is safe, that I have a house to live in.

When I was doing those daily posts, one of my friends told me that she'd been inspired by them. She said she'd seen a centipede on the porch, and she hates centipedes. "Then I thought of your posts," she said. "I realized that I can be thankful because centipedes eat insects, and also because this one was outdoors, not in the house." Some people did start practicing gratitude posting. Other friends, even ones I didn't know except online, were reading my posts, and might comment out of the blue, "I love these posts." I thought, "Oh good. I was privileged to give someone joy today, and they even told me about it."
An attitude of gratitude is a powerful agent for change. Sharing what I am grateful for can remind others of what they have to be thankful for—sometimes in a day or a week filled with problems. Mostly, being grateful changes me and how I look at life, even more than it changes others.
The fourteenth century German theologian and philosopher, Meister Eckhart, wrote, "If the only prayer you ever say in your whole life is 'thank you,' that would suffice." He and the Diné man who said, "Every day is a day for giving thanks," were onto something big.
This post appeared in the Gallup Independent a few years ago and has been updated in the hope that all of us in this season will be reminded that an attitude of gratitude is a powerful change agent every day, year-round.

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