The Courage to Kindle Gratitude

“I think finding light is more like kindling a fire. It takes a little effort, but once the fire is started there is not only light, but also warmth.”

Earlier this year I saw comedian Demetri Martin do standup. In one of his bits, he made a joke about how the worst thing someone can say to you when you are angry or upset is, “cheer up!”

Just cheer up! It’s so simple! Just go up with the cheer, don’t you see?

I’m sure when people tell us to cheer up, they have good intentions. But they’re dramatically oversimplifying it. It’s as though they think there is a light switch labeled “CHEER” and we have only to flip it upwards to extinguish the darkness around us.

For a long time, I beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t seem to have one of those light switches. I looked at people around me who seemed to see only rainbows and butterflies and wondered what was wrong with me.

But I’ve come to realize that no matter whether we are optimists or pessimists by nature, each of us faces times of darkness, and each of us must figure out how to find the light.

Unfortunately, darkness is often easier to find than light. We are surrounded by darkness. When we face forces as powerful as betrayal, self-doubt, disappointment, and depression, finding light is going to require more than simply flipping a switch.

I think finding light is more like kindling a fire.

It takes a little effort, but once the fire is started there is not only light, but also warmth.

For me, the metaphorical fire that extinguishes darkness the best is that of Gratitude, of seeing the good even amidst the bad, the light in the dark.

Perceiving and acknowledging the good things around us allows us to pause and gain a bit of perspective and often times, realize that even in our most bitter situations, there is good to be found.

But I, for one, can attest that feeling gratitude is not always a natural reaction. Like a fire, it must be kindled. Gratitude only operates as a verb; it is something we must do in order to become something we have.

I learned this in the summer of 2012.

It was the end of my first year living away from home. I had been spit out of a toxic job and an even more toxic relationship in the same week. Both situations had slowly but steadily chipped away at my confidence, leaving a shell of a girl who I barely recognized. I found myself unemployed and heartbroken and completely lost.

I have always suffered from anxiety and self-doubt, but nothing like this. I couldn’t seem to pick myself back up, and it scared me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I seemed to be physically incapable of it.

So, I wallowed. A week or two passed in a teary haze where I didn’t leave the house or talk to anyone because I didn’t have the strength to face reality. And then I ran out of tissues, and I realized I had two choices: Go buy more tissues and face the outside world, or stop crying.

I chose the latter. For a day, I stopped crying. And I gained enough of my mental bearings in that day to remember the very important fact that I lived fifteen minutes from the beach and now had nothing but free time!

So I drove to the ocean with my trusty notebook and forced myself to write down a list of all the good things I had observed in the world that day. They were simple things: The feeling of sunshine on my skin. The smell of the ocean. The parking spot that opened up right when I pulled into the lot.

It was gratitude in its simplest form.

After that day, I decided I would continue the exercise. Some days it was harder than others. Some days my loneliness and feelings of failure were crippling, and the last thing I felt like doing was trying to find the good around me. But I truly believe that silly exercise saved me. It created a brief part of my day where I could focus on something other than myself. It re-opened my eyes to the world around me and the good within it.

I felt my vision shifting; I started getting into the habit of looking for things that were good, and the more I looked, the more easily I saw.

Gradually, with effort and time, I kindled a fire of gratitude that warmed me back to life.

What starts as a simple spark can turn into a flame—every bit as contagious as sadness or fear, but instead of spreading darkness, it spreads light and warmth that will comfort us when we need it most.

Now remember, I am not an optimist by nature. I have had to give up hoping that I will one day wake up and be one. But I’ve come to believe that developing the ability to work for happiness is a more important skill anyway.

Because the happiness that comes as easily as flipping on a light switch can be just as easily switched off. It’s the fleeting happiness that comes with a new pair of shoes or a bunch of likes on your Instagram post.

But if we want to find the kind of light that lasts, sometimes we have to put in the effort to kindle that fire, creating a slow, steady burn that can’t be easily put out. We have to actively seek and discover the good that is around and within us.

In moments of darkness, the very thought of being grateful seems ludicrous, perhaps even as annoying as someone suggesting that you flip on your “Cheer up” switch. We can, however, consciously choose to have the courage to find real light. By taking it one baby step at a time—say, writing down something you’re grateful for or making an effort to say thank you—in these small motions we can pursue a path into light and joy and hope. We can take steps away from the darkness and start to kindle light and warmth.

Light that extinguishes darkness, yes, and also light and warmth that will last.


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