When gratitude does not come easy
Growing up, I had many fictional heroines with whom I identified: Anne Shirley, for her wild flights of fancy; Elizabeth Bennett, for her courage; and Jane (Tarzan’s Jane), for her adventurousness. I wanted to be just like them.
But try as I might, I could never quite relate to Pollyanna, the young orphan who, despite tragic events, maintains an almost mystically positive outlook on life. Do people like her really exist? I asked myself. And if they do, are they sincere, or are they just putting on Oscar-worthy performances? Super-bubbly cheerleader types set me, a true melancholy, on edge.
Time and again, as a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist, I heard the maxims “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4) and “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18), but considered them clichés. So throughout adolescence I cried at the slightest provocation: a mild insult from a peer, a B instead of an A grade, or a failure to place in the music competitions I entered, among others.
Thankfully, although I still do not mix well with “Pollyannas,” and likely smile less than the average person, I emerged fairly unscathed from my dark teen years.
Making a List
My journey from darkness to light began in university, as I came to internalize my faith—perhaps for the first time ever—and started anticipating my future. In the process of filling my life and mind with things that inspired me, I stumbled across Maya Angelou’s book Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas.
In her third autobiographical volume Angelou describes how, in her late 20s, after years of survival jobs, she landed a role as a singer/dancer in George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess. At the time Angelou, a single mom, reluctantly left her young son, Clyde, with her mother and family friends as she embarked on a yearlong tour of Europe and North Africa.
Although she would later call her touring experience “the greatest party of [her] life,” Angelou cut her tour a few months short when she missed Clyde terribly. Upon her return, she discovered that not only did Clyde have a terrible rash all over his body, but in her absence he had also transformed from a happy, gregarious boy to one who was fearful and shy.
Thinking she had ruined her son’s life, and feeling purposeless upon her return to the U.S., Angelou slipped into a deep depression, and even contemplated suicide.
At her lowest point she visited her old voice teacher, Wilkie. As she cried and told him about the disaster of her life, he listened quietly and without judgment. He then took out a notepad and pencil and asked her to list all the blessings in her life.
The list was simple yet profound: I have a brother. I have a mother. I have a son. I can cook. I can sing. I can dance.
At Wilkie’s urging, she ended her note with: “I am blessed. And I’m thankful.” While skeptical about doing this exercise, Angelou was amazed by the result. No sooner had she written the list than she began to feel silly. How could she let herself fall into the depths of despair when she had so much to live for?
In subsequent months she set about rebuilding her life. In time she secured more jobs as a touring performer, with her son by her side as a permanent fixture. In time Clyde reemerged as the confident, outgoing little boy she had left behind.
Facing the Challenges
I was an idealistic 19-year-old, and so Angelou’s story touched me deeply; yet I didn’t realize then how much of a difference the practice of gratitude would make in my life. I took Angelou’s account at face value, a motivational anecdote from one of my favorite authors.
But over the years I found myself returning to the gratitude list as I faced various challenges: stress at school, conflicts with coworkers, disappointment with loved ones. Sometimes I just wrote a long list, which I revisited when I needed uplifting; other times I wrote detailed entries in a gratitude journal on a consistent basis for weeks or months. If I couldn’t come up with anything specific, I expressed gratitude for things I would normally take for granted—my family, my faith, my health, random acts of kindness—and invariably found myself in a more positive frame of mind.
This lesson hit home one fall during a week in which nothing seemed to go right. I thought about writing a gratitude list, but in my misery I figured I would be hard-pressed to come up with even one item.
Just as my natural melancholy set in, the gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” came to mind. Unable to think of anything else, I started singing.
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
I sang and sang. Later, looking at myself in the mirror, I was surprised to see that I was smiling. The origin of my singing voice, which I have been told (and believe, with gratitude) is quite good, is a mystery; neither my parents, nor their parents, could carry a tune in a bucket.
I then wrote a long list, beginning with “I can sing” and ending with “I am blessed. And I’m thankful.”
Christelle Agboka is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.