My first day of pandemic life is crystallized in my memory in the same way that the exact spot where I was standing on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, is forever etched in my mind.
It was Friday, mid-March and I noticed that the people pushing carts through Costco around me were not leisurely picking up groceries like usual; they were stacking cases of water and multipacks of Lysol spray until they could barely see over the top. A man in the next checkout line wore a surgical mask and gloves as he loaded groceries onto the conveyer belt.
I think we’ll be in lockdown in a few weeks, I messaged my cousin from the parking lot, feeling a little overdramatic.
Before dark, stay-at-home orders were announced for our county.
Gratitude Can Feel Like Relief
At first, the pandemic seemed like a pause button. Trips were canceled, calendars cleared. It was ominous, but temporary. Life would simply be on hold for a few months, I remember thinking.
I was wrong, of course.
A momentary pause in the economy meant disaster for so many industries. My brother-in-law was laid off; my father-in-law forced into early retirement. All the while, the case counts continued to climb. As the months crawled by, we went from knowing one person diagnosed with COVID, to knowing dozens. We wrestled with how to meaningfully help our friends struggling with the virus, dropping off ice cream onto their doorsteps or sending a little coffee money over Venmo to try to bridge the social distance. Then there was the maddening conflict of hearing people in our periphery deny the virus’ existence, while reading nightly updates about a friend clinging to life on a ventilator.
We were acutely aware of the things we hadn’t lost and also of the things people around us had. We were thankful, always, in a way that felt more like relief. We were thankful for our health, thankful for our jobs, thankful that the electricity and water were still running. We were thankful for a yard to play in with our kids, food in the pantry and gas in the tank. There was so much to be thankful for, every news cycle reminded us, and so much that could still be taken away.
Release Yourself from the Cycle of Fear
This week, I stumbled across a picture taken last year at our annual Friendsgiving, a potluck meal we share with friends a few days before Thanksgiving. In the image, 18 of us, kids not included, are squished shoulder to shoulder in a living room, smiling so big that the picture had obviously been taken while we were laughing. It was another reminder of how much I missed the simple connection of being with friends, sharing food and the same air.
It has been nine months since I’ve been in a room with any of those friends, with no end in sight. And while, thankfully, we all have our basic needs met, I know that each face in that picture also represents a stack of fresh losses—lingering complications from COVID, job changes, plans canceled, life rearranged. It’s an experience that so many people can relate to right now: We’re thankful for the basics, for our health and for our families, but also keenly aware that any one of those could be stolen in an instant.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown calls this a “foreboding joy,” or a tendency to entwine our love for something with a fear that it will be ripped away from us. It’s a sensation new parents feel as they gaze at their newborn, overwhelmed with love for their child while simultaneously filled with terror that something horrific could happen to separate them. She describes this feeling as an internal “dress rehearsal for tragedy.” If living life in a pandemic were to have a tagline, “dress rehearsal for tragedy” seems pretty fitting.
But her research also points to a remedy that can bring back a sense of joy even if the losses keep adding up: gratitude. Giving thanks, her data shows, has the power to steady us.
We have collectively experienced the dread that comes with constantly rehearsing for tragedy. We also all have access to the antidote. As we approach the holiday season this year, Thanksgiving can be the moment we choose to allow gratitude to release us from the cycle of fear.
Each year holds blessings, but it can be difficult to muster the energy to count them while living in a season that requires constant preparation for a worst-case scenario. If you find yourself stuck in a rhythm of rehearsing for tragedy, try these four gratitude practices to quiet your fears and unlock your joy.
1. Acknowledge the simple ways others care for you.
The pandemic has doubled (or tripled) the workload for many of us. We’re working from home, helping our kids learn virtually and doing the work that is usually done by a team of trained professionals. But there are also countless people whose thoughtful contributions make each day better. For me, it’s Irma, the manager at our favorite local restaurant who never turns up her nose at my 8-year-old’s picky takeout order that includes a request to please not let the cheese touch anything else on the plate. Every time I do something taxing for someone else at home or at work, it’s a reminder that there is a long line of people who are doing the same for me.
2. Be generous with your life.
A week before we picked up our miniature Shih Tzu puppy, I noticed a woman with a lapful of dogs of the same breed sitting in the parking spot next to me. After a wave and a quick question about raising puppies, she shared every tip she could think of—from potty training to puppy care—across our rolled down car windows. Her patience and kindness stuck with me as an example of how even strangers can positively impact what can be an isolating season for all of us. When we’re willing to pause our lives to share a moment with others, we can’t help but build in moments of gratitude for ourselves and for those we encounter along the way.
3. Aim for the sum total, not the day by day.
When everything around us echoes gloom and doom, it can be easy to think that we will look back on this time as all negative. There have been days that have been awful, to be sure, but there are also glimmers of light that can create gratitude in all of them. When I think about the bright spots in the pandemic, I think of playing a board game on the living room floor with my kids, the encouraging group text full of friends from around the country that fills up my phone every few days, and being there to see my kids’ eyes light up when they get an answer right on their Zoom call with a teacher while virtual learning. When we’re removed from the immediate pain of a situation, it’s often the sweet and tender moments that rise to the top of our mental record, not the monotonous or discouraging ones. When you go to bed at the end of a terrible day, remember that it’s possible that all of these moments will shake out to equal more positive memories than negative in the end.
4. Revel in the ordinary.
On the truly impossible days, getting back to basics can be a saving grace. Make a list of 50 things that make your life better simply by existing. Nothing is off limits—your favorite coffee mug, clean sheets, hot water, your toddler’s messy bedhead, having a friend’s number in your phone, a working TV remote. If we pay attention, we can see that the extraordinary is often mixed into the ordinary. The world can be falling apart around us, but if we have 50 good things going for us, it’s easier to believe that tomorrow just might be better than today.
Read next: How Gratitude Works
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