How to Find Gratitude During the Holidays when you Feel as if You Can’t

‘Tis the season? In your mind, you know you should be counting your blessings and feeling gushy gratitude and tingling excitement, but what if you cannot summon any of those emotions? It’s  been a really rough year, even for those of us who have shelter, safety, and food. It’s depression, it’s anxiety. It’s financial disaster […]

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‘Tis the season? In your mind, you know you should be counting your blessings and feeling gushy gratitude and tingling excitement, but what if you cannot summon any of those emotions?

It’s  been a really rough year, even for those of us who have shelter, safety, and food. It’s depression, it’s anxiety. It’s financial disaster and political  warfare, mind-numbing mass shootings and edacious wildfires, racial genocide  and refugee dehumanization. It’s what you are going through on a personal  level, with loss and isolation, nothing to hold onto now or in the future; and  it’s  what we’re facing together, on the brink of losing our collective sanity and planetary sanctuary. Our despair is valid, and real.

For example: The United Nations reports that the occurrence of disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and fires has risen 51 percent from 20 years ago. We’ve lost loved ones to 307 mass shootings this year. Half of all Americans—youth are particularly prone—feel lonely and isolated. The calendar tells us it’s time to celebrate the holidays, but what do we do when we’re far beyond the reach of hot cocoa and sentimental movies?

To me, self-help advice rankles. My therapist advising me to meditate for insomnia completely misses the point; and my partner asking me to take a walk when I can’t stop sobbing means well, but I have to be able to breathe before I can walk. There’s a world full of advice out there, and much of it sounds hollow or even insulting when you’re hurting. However, I humbly offer five steps that have worked for me—not only to pull me out of the depths, but to make me feel grateful to go on.

  • Get real. Take stock of what’s functioning in your life as well as what’s lacking. Use the logical side of your brain to assess pros and cons. Maybe you home has heat but your cable and Internet got shut off; maybe you have chronic back pain but a healthy brain; maybe you work long hours at a boring job but adore the family you get to go home to. If it helps, write down your two columns of resources and stressors.
  • Don’t minimize. You may not live in a warzone, but your blood pressure has shot up from watching the news, or you worry about your friend displaced by wildfires, or you’re afraid to let your teenager out of your sight for fear of violence by others or herself. For instance, my family recently traveled to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—Haiti—and none of us emerged unscathed. Witnessing young men burning tires in protest of corrupt government and older women selling used goods on the sidewalk from dawn till past dark, we came home to sleep on mattresses and drive in cars and eat three meals a day. Anytime we can experience how others survive in challenging circumstances, whether in prison or poverty, discrimination or disability, it helps us recall the infrastructure and resources some of us (me) take for granted. Simultaneously, as my wise spiritual advisor told me, your pain is your pain. Perhaps you’re on this planet to endure or overcome it, but give yourself credit for carrying the load that you do have. It may be, in a strange strengthening way, what motivates you to grow.
  • Get comfort. Not the bottle of pills or booze or raiding the online shopping or the fridge; although sometimes a small dose of comfort food, retail therapy, a good movie, or a nap can really do the trick. But can you think bigger than that? Certain people and places in your life always make you feel better. For me, it’s a two-hour drive to visit my angelic adopted mom, or a walk out in nature if I can just pry myself up off my backside. It’s the holidays, and you deserve to be reminded of your intrinsic value as a person cherished by someone who adores you, and as an organism warming an Earth full of towering mountains and rustling trees, aromatic air and rippling seas, snow-flurry days and star-filled nights.
  • Reach out. It’s a proven fact of neuroscience that we humans need connection as much as water, food, and air. Just holding the door for someone, paying the toll for the car behind you, or bequeathing your place in line to someone in a hurry, can make you feel even better than the recipient. And you never know what effect you do have: suicide-prevention expert Kevin Hines recalls feeling that if just one person had made eye contact or asked if he were all right, that would have stopped him from leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt to end his unbearable pain.
  • Reboot. Right now, it’s critical to take care of ourselves and each other, all at once. To neglect one at the cost of the other will deplete us all. Use the holidays as a time to give yourself license to take stock of what’s good for you and change what isn’t. Start a news diet, take regular electronics sabbaticals, eat nourishing foods, light a candle, run fewer errands, walk or bike there, talk to people who believe in you, and find small ways to share the unique person you are with those whose lives you could light with your warmth.

What we give our attention and love to will flourish. You, and I, and each other—we deserve to give, and get, and experience authentic gratitude. The time is now.

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