Soothing the emotional strain of now
Here in London, it is the season of hope. The curves are dipping after nearly four months of lockdown. The vaccines are coming; the protection of our most vulnerable a relief I can feel in my (perhaps less vulnerable) body. Yesterday there were crocuses in Saint James’s Park and the first set of goslings, tiny and fuzzy nestled under their mother’s body. I can begin to feel buoyed by this and catch a glimpse of the future—hugging my parents, sitting in a circle with friends, watching live theater again.
And then there’s an article about a new variant, or the way the vaccines won’t halt the spreading of the virus, or about the insane way that humans have been treating each other and our environment, and a cold freeze settles over me again. Hope might be a thing with feathers but, like the tiny goslings, it can be fragile in the face of reality. On the one hand, I want to know that there is a better world ahead. On the other hand, getting attached to that future world leads to heartbreak.
A wise client, Steven Baert, was noticing this about himself. He told me:
When Covid hit, I choose hope over fear, but realized hope is not a true friend. Hope comes with an expectation and sets therefore a bar to be met or missed. Hope lives in the future and blinds us in the present. In that way, hope is related to fear, just a positive sibling. Gratitude is of a different level. Gratitude is initially in the recent past but when it becomes a habit, it’s with us in the present. And gratitude is less pretentious compared to hope. It treasures the small things, especially the small things. A delicious cup of coffee, the beauty of a sunrise, a hug from your children, a smile from a colleague all bring gratitude but will often go unnoticed when we focus on hope.
As I began playing with this idea of gratitude as a more robust friend than hope, I discovered a few things. First, I loved sinking into the space Steven described—the delights of the small things. I found unexpected joy in the rhythm of these blurring days, the splash of oatmilk in my chai, the rare glimpse of sunlight in the steely London grey, a profoundly connecting moment that reached through the computer and made time and space disappear. Gratitude is the emotion of the daily space, and a practice of gratitude made me more aware of the life I was actually living. Hope—at least in the way I made sense of it—took me out of the present whereas gratitude grounded me deeper in right now.
But there was a shadow to my relationship to gratitude. I realized that I was using gratitude not just as a way of making sense of my current life but as a weapon against any negative feelings that might arise. Feeling bleak and unhappy with London’s cold, grey, locked down sameness? I’d turn on myself, wielding the Sword of Gratitude to cut away at my sadness. I found my mind attaching “shoulds” to my gratitude—you should feel more grateful today, you should not give into frustration, you should notice what you have and not what you don’t.
Just as Steven had used hope to set a bar to meet or be missed, I was using gratitude the same way. I began to shift my practice allowing gratitude to live alongside difficulty. I joined these words with that ever-helpful assistant “and” to hold the days when I was grateful for what I had and also feeling really sad about what I’d lost.
When I allow the gratitude to sit alongside the loss or longing, a new possibility opens up for me. The shoulds drop away and I can touch into the gratitude that Steven has found as the saving grace of this Covid time. I find that instead of noticing sadness and thinking, “I should be grateful instead,” I can notice the sadness and also notice the things for which I am grateful.
I guess the thing that I am trying to (re)learn in this quiet season on the cusp of spring is that no matter what I use as a weapon against difficulty, difficulty remains. Any practice I create to diminish my connection to the difficulty itself becomes a twisted thing in my hands, stabbing where it should soothe, hiding where it should illuminate. Instead, I am coming to note that the sense of difficulty itself is a gift. Not a welcome or comfortable gift, to be sure, but an element that can catalyze something new in me. When gratitude is not a sword but a companion, the transformational power of these days of difficulty can be woven through with sparkling threads of joy. And the fluff of goslings and feathered hope can sit alongside me as a promise and not a poison.