When Gratitude is Hard

(Photo by Selma Komisky)

When Gratitude is Hard

By Kris Ann K. Erickson

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope

– Romans 5:3-4 (ESV)

I sat in silence staring at the backs of my hands. Months had passed with precious little sleep and this night I had given up trying, slipping down the stairs to the dining room table to await the inevitable start of another miserable day.

Dark thoughts and fearfulness had haunted my days and nights for as long as I could recall. I had developed different coping mechanisms at different stages of my life. Through elementary, middle and high school, I escaped in books. In college, I medicated with alcohol and marijuana. In adulthood, I threw myself into the pursuit of financial success. None of these freed me from the darkness inside.

I was 27-years-old and just 3 months into motherhood. All of my coping mechanisms were gone. I was too tired to read or chase money, and too responsible to drink. The darkness pressed in, jeering, “You’re worthless. You’re embarrassing. You’re a burden.  Your family is better off without you.”

It was time. I’d carried the darkness as far as I could alone. I would reach out for help, or I wouldn’t make it.

I remember my husband making phone calls for me to our small business employees, to my mom, to his mom, and to the family doctor. I remember feeling somehow both present and absent. I remember our little family of three squeezing into a tiny exam room. I remember the tears of relief as I uncovered the darkness. And, I remember that I received exactly what my tired, anxious, insecure self needed most hope.

I was diagnosed with both postpartum depression and with PDD (Persistent Depressive Disorder).  My doctor laid out a recovery plan that included medication, counseling, and practicing gratitude. Each one of these ingredients would play a critical role in improving my mental and emotional wellbeing.

I wasn’t surprised that the medication and counseling were helpful, but the power of practicing gratitude surprised me. The dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful.” To practice gratitude, I simply began reserving a few minutes before bedtime to record five things for which I was thankful that day in a journal. Initially, my lists included things like my meds, my therapist, a home to hide in, sheets to crawl under, and the unconditional affection of my devoted dog, Sophie. At first, this didn’t seem terribly helpful, but then something shifted. I began making mental notes of things that I appreciated throughout the day. My lists grew longer. Instead of focusing on darkness, I purposefully looked for the uplifting. My whole mindset shifted!

It turns out that gratitude produces rich fruit. In fact, a recently updated article written by Neal Burton M.D. for Psychology Today highlights a slew of desirable byproducts.

“…increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people engage much more with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and connectedness.”

To be clear, practicing gratitude is not pretending things are okay when they are not. It is not denying negative thoughts and feelings when they rise up. Because they do. Rather, it is choosing to implement space at the end of the day for those things we have appreciated most. Gratitude identifies the good that exists in spite of suffering!

I have learned to be grateful for the fruit that suffering has produced in my life. In Romans 5:3-4, the Apostle Paul encouraged the persecuted followers of Jesus in Rome, writing “we rejoice in our sufferings.” These early Christians suffered persecution for their faith, and Paul guided them to shift their focus from the misery of persecution to the marvelous fruit grown in suffering. He says to rejoice “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” In other words, dear friends, persevering in times of suffering strengthens our character and results in the beautiful and useful gift of hope!

I carry hope with me into new challenges and difficulties, confident that God will walk with me through every hard space just as He has done before. This hope is not for me alone. This hope is meant to be shared with others who suffer, and I am grateful today that I get to share it with you.

What about you, friend? Are you going through a hard space? Does the darkness taunt you? Can you name one thing for which you are thankful? Can you name five?

Let gratitude do its work in you.