Anna Elkins is a traveling poet and painter who earned a B.A. in art and English and an M.F.A. and Fulbright Fellowship in poetry. She has written, painted, and taught on five continents—exhibiting paintings and writing books along the way. Anna has set up her easel and writing desk in the mythical State of Jefferson. annaelkins.com
“I can read. I can tie my shoes. I have food in the fridge.” These are the kinds of things my down-the-street neighbor tells herself when she’s feeling off or blue—basic, often overlooked things worth giving thanks for.
The other day, I met my up-the-street neighbor. We talked about life, relationship and the pain and joy in both. We were trying to focus on the good stuff and not worry about the bad stuff. As I was leaving, I remembered my other neighbor and her gratitude. I said, “I think gratitude is the anecdote to anxiety. Wait…I mean antidote. Wait…I mean both!”
And there on her doorstep, I had a revelation. When we tell our stories of gratitude—the anecdotes—we create the antidote to the bad stuff: fear, anxiety, annoyance, all the nasty et ceteras.
I can testify: it works.
Try it yourself: Think of something ungood that you felt recently. Feel that feeling. Here’s (one of) mine: annoyance. I was walking in the Woodlands where people ignore the signs requiring dogs to be on leashes. A dog bounded toward me, leashless. His owner yelled out, “Don’t worry, he’s friendly.” Yeah, well, friendly means he’s jumping up on my bare calves after having run off-trail through the poison oak. I wanted to yell out, “Can’t you read the signs? Can’t you take responsibility for your actions?” And in my head the scenario spinned into global proportions where all people were hopeless and I was a fuming misanthropist.
Now, start listing things you’re grateful for—anything on the spectrum.
I give thanks for my nose.
I give thanks for the fact that I can walk.
I give thanks for the Woodlands someone bequeathed to this town.
I give thanks for trees that give shade, provide homes for birds, and clean the air that I am able to breathe through my nose as I walk in these woods….
I created an anecdote of gratitude that became an antidote to the nasty. Notice that it started with the thing literally in front of me: my nose. The more annoyed I am, the more basic the beginning, but those details inevitably build into a story of gratitude. I also moved from the little problem by reminding myself of the bigger narrative of life. I used a silly example to keep it light, but believe me: I’ve tried it on the Big Bad’s too. It still works.
Sometimes I begin with “I am grateful for…” or “Thank you for….”, but I have come to like “I give thanks for…” the best. It makes me an active “thanker.” It tells my inner pouty self: “You are choosing this good thing over this bad one. No matter what the bad thing is, you can still choose your attitude about it.”
When I practice this gratitude exercise, the annoyance dissolves. I discovered something I’m sure someone else has already discovered: that you can’t be grateful and annoyed (or angry, or anxious) at the same time. You have to let one of them go.
Now, dog paws in the woods are one thing. You might ask: what about divorce? Death? War? I’m not saying that if you drop and give 20 “thank-yous” in the midst of a military campaign that we’ll immediately have world peace. But then again…what if everybody did? What if everyone tried trading in their hurt, pain, and anger for gratitude? What might happen?
I’m grateful for grace, too—even (especially) toward myself. Just this morning, I indulged in frustration as a momentarily spotty Internet connection delayed some research for another essay. So, I gave thanks for my neighbors—those two friends whose anecdotes have become part of my antidote. And then I was in it again: the story of gratitude.
I choose to give thanks, thank you very much.