by Emily K. Hartner
Do you remember how this year began? At the turn of the decade, we looked to the new year with “2020 vision”—a play on the year 2020 that I thought was clever at the time. In March, the future looked more unclear.
What was clear was that a global pandemic had reached our shores. Then, the country burned with the injustice of racism at the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. As if that weren’t enough, the country burned as wildfires ravaged the west and then drowned in the waters of hurricanes on the gulf coast. The presidential election has spiraled our nation into a dangerous level of polarization. And to top it all off, we even experienced an earthquake (an earthquake!?) this summer where I live in North Carolina that rattled our house like nothing I’d ever experienced. The whole year feels a bit like a curse, not unlike the Egyptian plagues. I’ve heard some people call it the 2020 Dumpster Fire.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude during this challenging year, especially as we approach a holiday that demands it. I had a conversation (virtually, of course!) early in the pandemic with a group of women from my congregation. Somehow we began talking about the blessings of the pandemic–the gift of being able (being forced to) stay at home, the gift of time, the gift of baking, the gift of taking walks outside, the gift of technology.
To name a blessing — to be thankful for anything during this pandemic — felt like a burden for one woman. For her, the pandemic did nothing more than intensify her feelings of loneliness and isolation. Being unable to recognize a blessing made her feel guilty. Did she wonder if Paul’s encouragement to the Thessalonians to “give thanks in all circumstances” was a command to be thankful — or else — rather than an invitation to take inventory of what we have?
“You know,” I told her, “it’s okay if you believe life sucks.”
I have struggled with this myself during the pandemic. There were times when circumstances were challenging. I knew in my head all the good my faith has taught me. Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechism, “God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property –along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.” Cognitively, I knew this to be true. But so much of gratitude lies within the heart, not the head. And my heart was not feeling it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude. Does it lie buried in the rubble of the dumpster fire? And, if so, how do I dig it out?
I have a therapist friend who’s been doing a lot of work in the area of trauma-informed care, especially during the pandemic. She says we’re all dealing with a certain amount of trauma now. She likes to guide people who are having trouble finding positivity or gratitude through an exercise. She asks them to recall when they felt neutral–not necessarily good, but not bad, either. She asks them to identify what they felt during that moment: What they smelled, saw, heard, tasted. If we can recall even neutral moments, we can build new neural pathways that lead to gratitude, she says.
I engaged with this exercise myself. I thought of the night my 4-year-old son and I camped in our backyard. It was the first cold night after a hot and humid summer. Our tent had that stale smell, revealing we had not aired it out in a while. As we pitched it, my son’s giddy excitement sent him in the tent and out of the tent, in the tent and out of the tent. Though it wasn’t quite the same as cooking over a campfire, we ate macaroni and cheese on our back patio before turning in for the night, reading books by flashlight as we fell asleep to the sound of crickets. The image imprinted in my brain is that my son snuggled down in his sleeping bag: cozy, warm, and safe.
And at that moment and for that moment, I felt, in my heart, truly grateful.
1. At what points in your life has gratitude felt like a burden? When has it felt easy? Can you identify external factors that affected your gratitude?
2. Try leading yourself through the exercise mentioned above. Think of a recent neutral moment and how you experienced that moment with each of your senses. Did you discover anything for which you are thankful?
3. How do you cope during challenging times?
O God of abundance, I know that everything I have comes from you. Yet sometimes life feels so complicated that I cannot find the words to say thank you. When that happens, forgive me, and send your Spirit–the one who intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Lead my heart to a place of gratitude and to a realization of the abundance that you provide. Amen.
The Rev. Emily K. Hartner is the pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, N.C. She lives in Charlotte with her husband, Ian, 4-year-old son, Oliver, and two French Bulldogs. In her free time (ha!), she enjoys reading and exercising. She currently also serves on the ELCA Church Council.
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