Reclaiming the Lost Art of Gratitude

Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

When I first moved to Chicago a little over 12 years ago, I was instantly struck by the daunting presence of Chicago’s skyline, especially at night. The soaring jigsaw puzzle of buildings, illuminated in sharp contrast to the dark night sky, gives off an impression of splendor and power and it is hard not to be swayed by its magnetic pull.

But after living in Chicago for a short time, I quickly learned that this idyllic and broad skyline is not what the city is made of. The city is made of cracked sidewalks and road detours, of broken streetlamps and quiet neighborhood parks, of honking horns and lost tourists, of shared spaces and overwhelming opportunity, of millions of people all just trying to get somewhere.

Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography
Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

After a while, the spirit of the city became less about the polish of its lofty skyline, and more about the granular essence existing within the illusion – which can only be seen when you get up close and personal.

In a way, the dichotomy of the skyline and the heart of the city reminds me of this season that we are entering. From a distance, Thanksgiving looks shiny and strong, with its bold and public expressions of gratitude (Facebook’s 30 days of gratitude, anyone?), Pinterest-worthy centerpieces, tall orders of expectation, and lofty goals for the impending holiday season.

But when you get up close and really look at Thanksgiving – and at gratitude in general – the charm doesn’t come from a far-off, shiny, macro-level view; rather, the spirit of the holiday and essence of gratitude lies in a haphazard, crowded, broken, authentic personal and somewhat gritty view.

As we move further into this season of “thanks giving,” I can’t help feeling like we aren’t seeing the forest for its trees (or the skyline for its buildings, to beat this analogy to death), and I fear that the true essence of gratitude is becoming a bit of a lost art.

Photo Credit: Angie McMonigal Photography

Thanksgiving isn’t about fancy table settings or gourmet meals or false bravados of appreciation. Thanksgiving is about families coming together, bumping elbows and putting differences aside, forgiving our worst and rejoicing in our best, all to share a meal prepared simply with love.

Gratitude isn’t just obligatory thank-you’s for gifts and favors or bold professions of our blessings any more than a city is just its skyline. Gratitude is what you have when you get up close and personal – a peaceful appreciation for the absolute privilege of life, with its inherent flaws, messiness, and organized chaos. The act of giving thanks is a daily commitment, an intentional act of love, a spiritual practice of sorts, and an understanding that we are all a little broken, that we are all desperately in need of grace.

Source: Angie McMonigal Photography

Like Bethany Thies wrote in this article, “gratitude is not publicly rejoicing in the best of the best. It’s the timid celebration of the worst of the worst. It’s finding the joy in the seemingly joyless.”

And I, for one, want to reclaim the lost art of gratitude. While I don’t presume to have all the answers, I think that authentic gratitude hinges on a back-to-basics approach at a personal, rather than a public, level. Gratitude is a deeply felt inner truth, a delicate art form to be practiced, and refined over the course of a lifetime. Keep a gratitude journal. Pray. Meditate. Find something to be thankful for even when it seems almost impossible to find anything worthy of gratitude. Volunteer. Be present. Pay attention. Stop chasing the illusion of perfection.

Gratitude isn’t broad strokes of eloquent and obligatory thank-you’s either. The act of giving thanks is gritty and clumsy, awkward and vulnerable, constant and filled with kind truth. Write a sloppy handwritten note. Send a thoughtful and ineloquent email. Give compliments. Acknowledge growth. Surrender to our universal interdependence. Avoid assumptions. Be vulnerable. Be honest. Say what’s in your heart.

Sure, when you get up close and personal, gratitude doesn’t look quite as grandiose or shiny as it appears from afar. It’s messy and complicated, tricky and nuanced; it’s hard work.

But, up close, gratitude is also abundantly full of the connective fibers of life, the very essence of what it means to be alive. Up close and personal, gratitude changes the view of everything.

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This post is part of the weekly Photo Inspiration Challenge.  An extra special thanks to Angie McMonigal Photography for her photos, as well as her support and friendship. Please make sure to visit her website or facebook page. Her work is both stunning and impressive.

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6 Comments

    • Absolutely. A constant practice. I’ve also found that sometimes the people I am most thankful for hear it the least – and this needs to change.

  • So inspired by this Christine! I forced myself into a daily written gratitude list habit this summer when my life fell apart. I had my heart broken by the love of my life, my dad died in a pretty terrible and sad way, I sprained my foot 3 days before moving to a 5th floor walk up apartment in NYC, and I struggled to pay my bills…all in the few months before my 30th birthday. It helped me see how many blessings I had even with all the other mess.

    During the lowest parts, I was inspired by Oprah to start a gratitude list and I think it saved my life. Now months later I’m doing wonderful, and honestly I feel so grateful for all the strength I gained from these terrible happenings. I hope to keep my gratitude habit steady for my whole life and to deepen the work as I go along.

    My favorite quote from your article is when you said, “And I, for one, want to reclaim the lost art of gratitude. While I don’t presume to have all the answers, I think that authentic gratitude hinges on a back-to-basics approach at a personal, rather than a public, level. Gratitude is a deeply felt inner truth, a delicate art form to be practiced, and refined over the course of a lifetime. Keep a gratitude journal. Pray. Meditate. Find something to be thankful for even when it seems almost impossible to find anything worthy of gratitude. Volunteer. Be present. Pay attention. Stop chasing the illusion of perfection.” <–That inspires me. So honest, so true.

    Thank you!

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