Over the last few years, I have noticed anxiety arising more often in my mind and my body. Perhaps you have, too, since anxiety is one way that humans respond to times of long-lasting stress and we’ve collectively been experiencing the stressors of a global pandemic and increased societal divisions. In addition to a visit to the doctor to regulate my hormones, I have been gathering tools to help me not to worry. One of those tools is gratitude.
In Philippians, Paul invites us to let go of anxiety. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Notice that he says thanksgiving, or gratitude, is part of the alternative to anxiety. Behavioral scientists have observed the truth of the connection Paul makes between the practice of thanksgiving and the lessening of anxiety. How does this work? How does it contribute to peace? As I have practiced gratitude regularly, this is what I notice. Gratitude helps me with anxiety because it grounds me in the present moment rather than the uncertain future or past mistakes. Often, I feel anxious when I feel like the future is out of my control. When I become aware that I am anxious, and begin to practice naming specifically what I am grateful for, it brings me to the present moment. And in the present moment, I find I am safe and I am okay. God is present here. There is goodness and beauty. There are warm cups of tea, thoughtful family members, smells of baking bread, soaking rains, and singing birds.
When I experience challenges and difficulties that lead me to lament or concern, gratitude helps me to also pay attention to what is good. If I feel stuck in the negative possibilities of worry, gratitude provides the balance that I need and reminds me that I can hold both difficulty and goodness at the same time in my life. One need not cancel out the other.
Expressing gratitude reminds me of God’s care both in the present and in the past. As I remember the gifts that God has placed in my life, even in the midst of difficulty, and how I have come through difficulty in the past, I feel assured that my current concerns will be met by God as well. I feel stronger and more hopeful when I think of the people that have journeyed with me, how we navigated challenges, and how I was not left alone in my hardship. Practicing gratitude helps me relax into the belief that God will accompany me through difficulty and continue to provide help and companionship for whatever may come.
Finally, gratitude for creation assures me that I am part of a larger story that goes beyond my own concerns and worries. God and the story of the world have been going long before me and will continue after me. It calms me to know that my story is not at the center of the world or of history. I am held and cared for, and I am part of a much bigger story. Recently, I wandered along a Minnesota creek and wrote these words.
I am grateful for the land of my birth:
the green smell of freshwater lakes,
rolling fields, harvest of golden corn.
Tangy apple cider,
brilliant white birches topped
with autumn yellow,
maples in multiple stages of fall glory.
Brown lobed oak leaves,
sound of trickling water,
lapping waves, vast skies,
fluffy clouds, stacking one on top of another.
And birds…so many birds.
Bald eagle, downy woodpecker,
cardinal, blue jay, sparrow and chickadee,
trumpeter swan, Canada goose,
turkey vulture, hawk.
Crisp chilled autumn air—
hinting at the coming snows.
Prairie being restored plot by plot,
wild turkey flocks
crossing the roads.
Silent gliding through lake
waters in a kayak.
I feel it deep in my bones
How about you? What gifts are you grateful for in this moment? I’d like to invite you to take a moment to breathe deep, and name them.