The joy of gratitude

It seems as if we’ve been in Advent waiting all this long, dark year. Isn’t the best time to light a candle when the darkness is deep?

When I made a New Year’s resolution to keep a gratitude journal, I didn’t know I was strengthening myself to sing “Joy to the World” in a time so lacking in obvious joy. It was my Weight Watchers leader’s idea. She said we should focus on the good stuff so we can keep the bigger picture. There’s science behind how practicing gratitude helps us respond to setbacks and keep on keeping on.

The more I used my joy muscle, the stronger it got. I lifted smaller weight joys at first: Admiring the stillness and beauty of snow. Enjoying the savory smell of vegetable soup on a cold night. Food doesn’t have to be rich to be delicious. Healthier is happier.

Nothing renewed my spirit like movement, especially walking, dancing and tai chi, so I pursued those healthy habits. My Fitbit was an encouragement with its daily vibrations at 10,000 steps.

More and more I found joy in goofy little moments when, as the psalmist put it, “our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:2). I got a kick out of finding three grocery carts abandoned blocks from the store and pushing them back to their home. In the parking lot I got a nice whiff of bread baking. The grocery store chain’s slogan, sung to a chirpy melody, is “where there’s a helpful smile in every aisle.” My friend Janet says it should be “where there’s a snotty smirk on every clerk.” But that’s not true. It makes my day to talk with the clerks and learn their names. I especially admire Courtney, a seeing-impaired grocery bagger who tells me she can perceive only slices of vision. She was featured in the local paper as being a martial-arts competition winner. Amazing! She thanked me for bringing the carts back.

Ah, you might say, but what about the pandemic and poverty and home­lessness and hunger and loneliness and hopelessness and suicides? What about climate-sickened Mother Earth? What about forest fires and hurricanes and tornadoes? What about racial violence and those whose lives it has claimed, whose names we now say? How can a little thank-you habit bring joy to the chaotic world? Aren’t you a Pollyanna to keep up your happy song?

Well, I don’t feel happy about a lot of things. Joy is deeper than happiness. Harder sometimes. But I try to find a kernel of goodness in the brokenness around me.

I find joy in singing, “It is well with my soul.”

I find joy in watching children dance and then forgetting I’m a grown-up and joining in.

I find joy in balancing my checkbook and seeing how much I can give to the helpers who make things better.

I find joy in wearing colorful face masks and smiling with my eyes.

I find joy in crafting greeting cards with calligraphy, ink stamps and stickers.

I find joy when my writing flows as if it is writing me.

Sometimes joy surprises me. As I struggled to write this essay, I scolded the cat for getting on the table. But then I couldn’t resist the softness of her fur and the sweetness of her asking for love. I apologized.

When Thanksgiving came, while acknowledging the suffering of Indigenous people I could still look for the good and give thanks for the harvest. I found joy in the fruit of healthy habits: I had shed extra pounds, gained lean muscle and improved wellness overall. My mental health had improved as well, giving me strength to reach out to peers doing mighty battle with ­mental-health conditions.

Thanksgiving dawned bright and cold. I found cheer in long walks up and down hills that my Fitbit credited me as stairs climbed. I looked up at trees. Many were missing branches from a terrific windstorm last August. I lamented the loss of the tree friend I called Mrs. Honey Locust. But lo and behold, all around her stump green shoots appeared.

At noon I joined a Zoom meeting with my pastors and others for conversation as we ate in separate homes. The food tasted better that way.

I sent out Thanksgiving-themed e-cards. My friend Joyce emailed back to thank me, saying, “I will spend today by myself, as will many of my friends. Perhaps you, also, will be alone. If so, let’s be alone together, feeling the love and respect we share for each other. With those caring thoughts we are never truly alone.”

It seems as if the world has been in Advent waiting all this long, dark year. Isn’t the best time to light a candle when the darkness is deep? If you can’t find the spirit to sing for joy, hum a little. With practice, you might experience the miracle of singing “Joy to the World” during an online Christmas Eve service. As discordant as that might sound, God will bless it as a joyful noise. “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 100:1, NIV).

Margalea (short for Margaret Lea) Warner is recently retired after 35 years of service as a hospital secretary. She finds joy in watching her cat Helen of Toy playing with her favorite toy, a paper bag. She looks forward to having devotionals appear in Rejoice! magazine in 2021.

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