It has been a tough year that has, at times, felt like one long, dark night. 2020 has been filled with disappointment, loss, anger, frustration, pain, uncertainty, and anxiety. The title of a Charles Schulz comic on my bookshelf sums up my experience quite accurately: “My Anxieties Have Anxieties.” I’m sure everyone could share countless stories of challenges, stress and sorrow from situations that occurred in this year alone. And yet, here we are, entering the holiday season, a time to shift focus and be thankful.
I find it difficult to focus on gratitude when hardship seems to outweigh thankfulness by a million to one. When I read the news, I’m flooded with death, devastation, and division. And when I browse my 2020 calendar, I see multiple cancellations of eagerly anticipated plans, loss of expected routines, and missed opportunities for building memories and strengthening relationships. The challenges have been so frequent, it has been easy to get into a habit of labeling days, weeks, and, finally, months as “bad.” I developed a pattern of hoping maybe the next day would be able to make the quantum leap to “good.” But, as 2020 has so poignantly demonstrated, sometimes the next day, or week, even month, is not better. I have to admit, I have joined the chorus of voices expressing frustration at how miserable 2020 has been and wishing for a fresh, better start to life in 2021. Focusing all of my energy on hoping for a better future has made it difficult to lean into gratitude in the present. It has been especially challenging to shift my mindset as we enter into the Thanksgiving holiday season.
As I have been contemplating thankfulness, I realize that this year the concept feels much more raw and gritty, more subdued, more solemn, more contemplative. I want to skip the giddy thankfulness often expressed during this time of year. As much as I secretly wish for a simpler time when I would smile at all the exuberant “so thankful for [insert an idealized or perfected highlight reel or achievement of some enviable life milestone],” it does not feel helpful this year. However, there is something compelling that comes from thankfulness for the basics: the gift of life, the gift of another day, the acceptance that every day, all of life, in fact, holds both the good and the bad and through it all, abiding thankfulness can still exist.
Through this more subdued gratitude, I have found there’s something comforting in acknowledging that being thankful does not necessarily mean an absence of frustration or disappointment. Similar to the insight shared in the movie Inside Out, I have come to accept that even moments of joy are often tinged with sadness, even thankfulness can contain acknowledgement of loss. These are not exclusive of each other. As I navigated this year, I often listened to music as a way to help center myself. One of the most frequently played songs has been “It Is Well With My Soul”:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Thankfulness and a sense of peace can be held in tandem with all the definitely-not-thankful-parts of 2020.
This year has presented many opportunities to slow down and examine my outlook on life. Yes, some days it’s all but impossible to find anything to be genuinely thankful for. There are days when it’s difficult to even fathom achieving a sense of being thankful, as defined by Merriam-Webster: “conscious of benefit received” (hardly), “expressive of thanks” (didn’t even cross my mind), “well pleased” (not even close). However, before I lose myself in a complete pit of despair, I should mention there have been days when I have experienced authentic moments of thankfulness. Genuine thankfulness, often for small things: a legitimately restful night’s sleep, my morning cup of coffee, random silliness expressed by my kids, an afternoon walk, a letter in the mail. Thankfulness for all that still is. When I stumble onto these moments of thankfulness, I do my best to savor them. In her book “One Thousand Gifts,” Ann Voskamp encourages readers to focus on the abundant, simple gifts in life. I have been reminded of this many times, especially throughout this year: despite the sadness for all that is not, there is still much to be thankful for.
So, when you’re in a mental space that accommodates a focus on gratitude, find a moment to be thankful, to reflect and truly appreciate all that still is. I encourage you to accept that this thankfulness is not cheapened by a lingering sense of longing, regret, disappointment, anger, and frustration for all that has been lost, for all that was not, for all that will continue to not be. Thankfulness that is punctured by sadness can still have a sense of peace and gratitude woven throughout. In a year when everything around us has screamed disaster and disappointment, take time to protect space for the quiet voice of thankfulness. Although it might look and feel different from previous years, thankfulness does still exist, even in 2020.
Wendi, her husband, and their two kids live in Minnesota and are currently perfecting their best “ya sure you betcha” accents. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters and a member of the podcast Moms Who Wine.
*photo credit: personal photo*