As 2017 comes to its end, the daylight grows and we move toward more light. I love these days between the Winter Solstice and Christmas– and the first days of the new year, 2018. As a teacher, I have these days off but am looking forward to the new semester, its students, its poems. These days always carry a reflective feel to me. The looking back. The looking forward.
One of my mentors at Notre Dame was a Holy Cross priest named John Gerber. He used to say that at the end of our lives, most of us are either angry or grateful. He also spoke often of the need to practice gratitude. It might not be natural to us. But if practiced, gratitude can color and fill us. While my practice of gratitude is spotty at best, I know its necessity. I fully believe in it.
Someone told me recently that it seemed odd to consider gratitude a skill. They insisted it was a reaction. I suggest it can become a more natural, and more frequent reaction, when we practice it. But it seems clear to me that it must be practiced– like free throws. As any good basketball player or coach knows, the theory behind a good free throw shooter is purely practice. Create the correct muscular memory by shooting so many free throws that when put into the same position, the memories take over. I don’t know if practice makes perfect, but the correct practice creates a consistent result. One of my former poetry students, a very accomplished basketball player, told me last year that he practiced three-point shots from a couple of specific locations several hundred times a day. This practice. This repetition. This is what enables the player to make it in the fury of a game. He can make it because his arms, legs, hands, eyes have done it so many times already.
Practicing gratitude is simple enough and it is changing me: I try to carve out time each day to think about people for whom I am thankful. The change comes slowly, as most do. But the practice helps. Gratitude can have a softening effect. It can make us less rigid, more able to bend. Gratitude can lead us into a more truthful vision of people around us. If I am honest, I know everyone around me struggles and yearns just as I do. Perhaps not in exactly the same ways, but in the same ways essentially. Practicing gratitude helps me live in a better relationship to those around me.
I try to be still and visualize people who have shown me something. Faces, moments, songs, poems, all come to my mind. Then my task is to consider them slowly. This deliberate practice helps me recall another’s kind words, a friend’s surprising generosity, a stranger’s assistance, a student’s vulnerable effort.
Can I be grateful for 2017? The more I slow myself down and think through different days, hours, and moments, I can be. I can see a year as a gift– even though some of its moments might have been painful. In doing so, I also make myself more available to the days, hours, and moments of 2018.
As a boy, I used to shoot hundreds of free throws on the alley basketball court behind my house. Today, I shoot fewer free throws. But I practice more gratitude than I used to. Maybe in 2018 I’ll get to work on free throws too.
Photograph: Basketball hoop, Northeast Washington, D.C. Taken by J. Ross