Eating salad during a heart attack

Today was a particularly busy day for me, laden with layers of anxiety and prefaced by a restless sleep. So, as I sipped my jasmine tea this morning, I turned my thoughts to gratitude. I listed the things I was thankful for: the capacity to do the work required of me, a dedicated team of co-workers, helpful and understanding roommates, a fantastic new apartment to move into—I mentally moved through my schedule, thanking God for the aspects of my life that made each part of my day possible. And after just a few more tastes of tea, the miracle happened: I felt better. My stress level fell and my face slipped more naturally into a smile.

I have heard the benefits of gratitude touted by everyone from my mom to the Dalai Lama, and while I believed them, I often thought that maybe I just wasn’t grateful enough. Creating lists of things I was thankful for hasn’t really had an effect on my overall mood, except perhaps to make me feel guilty for feeling bad because look at all these things I have to be thankful for!!!! That is, until this morning.

I could think up a variety of theories to explain why my gratitude list was so helpful today, but a likely candidate is that my depression is the most under control I believe it has ever been in my adult life. Gratitude is often upheld as an important antidote to depression, and while I do believe it is a necessary practice, I don’t know how effective it is against a severe depressive episode.

Practicing gratitude might be a little like eating a nourishing salad—it is undoubtedly beneficial to your health, but it’s not going to do you much good when you’re having a heart attack. Sure, eating a salad during a heart attack probably isn’t going to make things worse, and most assuredly eating a diet rich in nutritious vegetables will contribute to your heart’s overall health. But when you are experiencing the acute distress of a heart attack, you need specialized medical attention before eating a salad will have a noticeable effect on your general wellbeing.

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Now that the acute distress of my severe depression has been lifted through a network of interventions, gratitude can take its full place as a meaningful practice to maintain my mental health. In moments of stress, being thankful releases my being’s innate healing capacity and connects me to God’s renewing presence. I’m glad I practiced gratitude in the midst of my hardest depression—you don’t stop eating salad just because you discover you have a blocked artery, after all. But I’m also delighted that, when my health is strong, being thankful can actually make a marked difference to my experience of the day.

So be ever thankful, my friends. But also be ever mindful of the webs of care you might need to hold you up and help you to flourish. If you’re having a heart attack, don’t beat yourself up because your salad consumption isn’t making a difference. Get the immediate help you need, and then keep eating all the salad you want.

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be ever thankful?

One of the most common pieces of advice I see in those “10 ways to change your life” or “5 practices of happy people” or “17 guaranteed ways to looks as bright and shining as the airbrushed person in this stock photo”articles is to keep a gratitude list.  As I’ve said elsewhere, practicing thankfulness is the first thing my mom always suggests when I find myself in a challenging mental space.

What does it mean to live in gratitude?  Is it simply saying “thank you” when good and/or beautiful things happen or appear?  Is it about being grateful in specifics or in general?  And what are the implications of thanking God for good things?  What about when gifts seem to be withheld, or when bad things come?  Who is responsible?

A couple weeks ago, my sister posted a picture to facebook that showed her plant named Roselyn, a gift from a fellow student.  Her caption read: “I’ve had Roselyn for about a year and half now, and this the first time she’s ever blossomed.  I didn’t know she was supposed to!  For once I think she may not be struggling for her life.”  In the picture, the dark burgundy leafy stalks sheltered a small bloom, pink and tentative and still opening up.  My dad left a comment underneath: “See.  We all bloom eventually.”  My sister had not written the words “thank you” or “gratitude” anywhere in her post, but something of thankfulness was evident in her surprise and delight and in my dad’s choice to see a universal truth speaking through a specific moment.

But what if Roselyn had never bloomed?  Or what if a bud had appeared but never opened?  What if we don’t all bloom eventually?  What if my sister’s plant had died?

dscf4911I am reminded of the kadish prayer, recited at a Jewish funeral, which praises God for the goodness of God and the world God has made.

Perhaps we are called not so much to be grateful for things that seem good and beautiful but for life when it is real and true.  For those times when the blinders of our fear, busyness, self-absorption, pessimism, optimism, dishonest perfectionism, all these fall away for a moment and we are confronted with the rawness of life, in all its terror and miracle.  So we give thanks when we laugh until we can’t breathe, and we give thanks when we shake and heave with sobbing.  We give thanks when a newborn wails its way into being, when a loved one breathes their last, tender words, when we hold a delicate flower and when we ride out a devastating storm.  Our stance of gratitude is based not on how well things are going but on how alive we are in this wild world.  And we give thanks to the One who is the true center of this aliveness.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he told us. Gratitude is the choice to live attentive to God’s aliveness in us.