Finding Gratitude and Grace in the midst of Difficult Times

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

One of my favorite children’s books is “ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY” by Judith Viorst. Somehow it seems an appropriate book after almost two years of COVID and challenges that none of us ever anticipated. To say the last 18 months have been difficult would be a profound understatement. The world, and our lives have changed in ways we could never have anticipated.

The book begins with these profound words, “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. At breakfast Anthony found a Corvette StingRay car kit in his breakfast cereal box and Nick found a Junior Undercover Agent code ring in his breakfast cereal box, but in my breakfast cereal box all I found was breakfast cereal. I think I’ll move to Australia. In the carpool Mrs. Gibson let Becky have a seat by the window. Audrey and Elliott got seats by the window, too. I said I was being scrunched. I said I was being smushed. I said, if I don’t get a seat by the window, I am going to be carsick. No one even answered. I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle. At singing time she said I sang too loud. At counting time she said I left out sixteen. Who needs sixteen? I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

Do you relate to Alexander? Ever have one of those days or weeks or months? We all have! Too often our days are stressful, anxious, and frustrating. I was at a party last week where the conversation turned to road rage and people’s anger: but of course, it’s no wonder! Since March of 2020 we have been struggling with a pandemic that no one saw coming, and with it all kinds of pressures and frustrations ranging from working at home, to homeschooling, to church shutting down, and many other changes. We and those around us have been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day or year. The result is often frustration, anger, anxiety, and agitation, all of which makes it difficult to find gratitude.

In the midst of all the stress and frustration around us as we approach Thanksgiving, try to find gratitude. Instead of focusing on the problems around us, intentionally look for things to be grateful for. Maya Angelo’s advice is, “be present in all things and thankful for all things''. Profound advice; difficult to practice.

Just this month, in the midst of running the Philadelphia half marathon with my wife and about 10,000 others, I began to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad run. Despite my wife slowing down to encourage me, I was feeling miserable. Then, on a long hill, I passed a group of runners pushing their mother/friend/aunt suffering from terminal cancer with a month to live, through the half marathon in a wheelchair. Their shirts read “she has run a good race, we will push her to the finish”. Turns out, the woman had been a marathoner and IronMan who wanted to do one last race before she died. The image brought tears to my eyes and obviously a whole different perspective. I was grateful for health, for the support of my wife, and for the love this woman’s family and friends were demonstrating. While my run did not get better, my sense of gratitude and perspective improved immensely!

Practicing gratitude can be transformational. In the midst of all of our shared struggles, anxiety, and frustrations... practice gratitude! End the day reflecting on what you have to be grateful for. Whether you keep a gratitude journal, or some other practice, what you focus on will determine your attitude and your experience. While I’m disappointed with my time in the race, the image of that family pushing their dying friend in a wheelchair with her encouraging them is what will stay with me and impact the way I see life.

Tish Harrison Warren in her NYTimes article on what gratitude teaches us suggests: “To receive life as a gift is to acknowledge that we do not - and indeed cannot - hold our world together out of our sheer effort, will and strength. Most of the best things in life can only be received and held with open hands… Indeed, understanding all of our existence as a gift allows us to see that we are limited in our own capacity to control the world and yet we are given what we need, day by day.”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!