I read something recently about being thankful for difficult things. To be totally honest, I’m not that good at expressing gratitude and thankfulness for all the wonderful things in my life, so being thankful for the difficult things? Well, that seems like a reach.
But being more grateful — or rather, taking the time to pause and ACKNOWLEDGE that I am grateful — is something that I’ve been working on recently. And in that process I’ve realized something. Almost every human being I know is pretty shit at gratitude. And that’s because gratitude is kind of hard. If it were easy, having a gratefulness project wouldn’t be a thing. If it were easy, self-help advice like “spend five minutes before bed listing things you’re grateful for” wouldn’t be a thing, because we would all be aware of those wonderful things all the time, and grateful for them in the present moment, and we wouldn’t need to list them out before going to sleep.
But we do need to do that, because we humans are absolute shite at gratitude. There’s probably an evolutionary reason for this. I mean, if our cavepeople ancestors were always focused on how warm and nice the fire was, or how cool their cave paintings were, they wouldn’t notice the saber-toothed tiger bearing down on them. So, from an evolutionary perspective, it totally makes more sense to be dwelling on the probability that you’re going to be eaten by a tiger at any moment.
But now that we’re apex predators and all, this inability to recognize and focus and dwell on the good things in our lives — well, it’s kind of a problem for a lot of us, myself included. It’s like I talked about in my recent post about tailwinds. It’s soooo much easier to notice the things that are in our way, or the bad things that might happen, rather than the good stuff that is pushing us forwards.
So, my point is, gratitude takes effort — it feels like it shouldn’t, but it does, and that’s okay. That’s why Thanksgiving is a great holiday (despite it’s somewhat shaky historical precepts), because while theoretically we should be grateful every damn day, we simply aren’t, so a holiday dedicated to gratitude is a really good idea. Plus, there’s turkey and pumpkin pie and also this year it’s my 27th birthday, so that’s cool, too.
I’ve come to realize recently that nearly everything I talk about on this blog has the same basis, and gratitude is no different — it’s all about mental re-framing. Say thanks instead of sorry, and turn your attitude around. Look where you want to go, not at the cliff edge you’re trying to avoid. Focus on your tailwinds, not the wind in your face. Obviously this is a theme in my life. Are you guys bored with me yet?
So while being grateful for family and love and pumpkin pie and dogs is important, being grateful for difficult things makes a lot of sense to me, too. Because when you’re grateful for difficult things, you start looking at them in a different light. It brings you out of your “woe is me, this terrible thing happened to me” mindset and puts you back in control. And while it may not change the actual circumstances, it will change the way you cope. And who knows, it MIGHT change the circumstances.
I should clarify that I’m not saying this on a grandiose scale of “death makes us thankful for life” or “you have to see darkness before you can appreciate light.” I suppose you can take it that way if you want, but I don’t really feel qualified to make that big of a statement.
No, I’m talking more about the little difficult things. Can you be thankful for the rock garden you can’t figure out, because it gives you a challenge and room to progress? Can you be thankful for bad weather because it makes you tough? Can you be thankful for the line in the supermarket because it gives you time to remember that you forgot to buy eggs? Can you be thankful for losing a job or a sponsorship contract, because it opens up other, better opportunities? I don’t know, but it seems worth a try.
For me personally, I’m working on being thankful for my left knee. After an eight month reprieve, it has decided to give me problems again, which is frustrating to say the least. If I’m not careful, I fall into a doom and gloom loop of “I’ll never be the athlete I want to be, I’ll never be able to run more than ten steps at a time, how is this happening AGAIN, WOE WOE WOE.” However, after the last time my knee flared up in March of this year, I made a decision — I would just accept that my knee problem would never go away. I realize that sounds a little pessimistic, but let me explain. I wasn’t giving up on trying to fix my knee issues, I was just accepting that it’s going to be a re-occurring issue, that it would be something I would have to deal with, that a few times a year, I would be laid up on the couch with knee pain. This helped me put the issue into perspective — while it feels like the end of the world, it simply isn’t. It also freed me up to listen to my body and [hopefully] lessen the impact of the flare-ups by doing so. After all, when knee pain meant the end of the world, I ignored it until the absolute last minute, until I absolutely could not pedal a bike without excruciating pain. Now, I’m just kind of like, oh you again, I guess I’ll take tomorrow off.
If acceptance is the first piece, gratitude is the logical next step. I can tell that expressing gratitude for my knee issues is not going to be easy — for example, I’m on draft #157 of this stupid blog post.
But, there ARE things to be grateful for in this situation. Here are a few:
— For example, while I continue to have issues with my knee, I figure something new out every time. Each flare up unveils another piece of the puzzle. And while the problem may never fully disappear, if the past eight months are any indication, my knee can now withstand a lot more. I can do more without having issues. It’s like the age old saying about getting in shape and racing — “it never FEELS easy, you just GO faster.”
— Also, my knee issues have put me into contact with the world’s best physical therapist and strength trainer, Dane from Revo PT and Performance in Boulder. Working with Dane has made me stronger and smarter about movement in about 10,000 ways. I’ve learned a ton about everything from positioning on the bike to proper form for strength training.
— Speaking of which, my knee has given me no room for imperfection with movement. It has forced me to start at the basics with every weight bearing activity I do — from standing up and walking to squats and deadlifts. It has forced me to be perfect or suffer the consequences of one tiny imperfection. Sometimes it’s frustrating to watch others lift twice as much weight as me, with half the form, but the truth is that being perfect pays off in the long game. I would never have the patience to master the basics the way I have, if I didn’t HAVE to. Not to mention, I would never have the patience to stretch for nearly 40 minutes a day, if I didn’t have to.
— And lastly, my knee has been a useful barometer for when I’m doing too much. Whether I’m pushing myself too hard on the bike, or when I’m over-extending myself with too many projects (and not enough time to stretch), it lets me know. Which, irritating as this can be, has probably prevented me from incurring even worse burnout than I have already.
So, am I thankful I have a bum knee? No, not hardly, but it is helpful to focus on the good things that have come from a difficult situation, and to be grateful for those things, even if you can’t quite bring yourself to be grateful for the difficult thing itself. And hey, it’s the spirit of the season.
What about you? What’s your difficult thing? How can you use gratitude to change your relationship with this thing? Does it help?