5 Gratitudes

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There is a growing body of scientific research that suggests that there is deep therapeutic value in the practice of gratitude. Research compiled by The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley suggests that gratitude can increase happiness and the overall sense of well-being, that it can increase life satisfaction, reduce burnout and make us more patient.

The benefits of gratitude are not purely mental either. Gratitude can help lower your heart rate, and those who practice gratitude report better sleep, have less fatigue, and have lower levels of cellular inflammation. Gratitude seems to improve our overall mental and physical health in some pretty significant ways.

I have found this to be true for me as well. I know that I am happier, more positive, and more patient when I make it a point to regularly practice gratitude. One of the primary reasons I started doing Friday Positivity every week was because it made me slow down, take stock, and really think about the things that I was grateful for.

What I found was that, over time, I began to pay closer attention to the things that brought me joy. I began to think - sometimes at odd times - that certain events or situations would be great for Friday Positivity. It helped me notice the good things that were happening.

And that has been important of late. As great as gratitude is, and as much positive impact as it has had on me personally, the last year it has been really challenging to find things that I am grateful for. The last year has brought more challenges and laments than grace and joys.

Gratitude has often been an act of faith. It has been a spiritual discipline.

Gratitude is spiritual because it brings me closer to the divine. Like with all spiritual practices, this effect ebbs and flows over time. Sometimes, gratitude comes easily and fully and I feel completely at home in the universe. Other times, I have to go looking for good things in that one drawer in the kitchen that always holds all the junk. You know the one I am talking about.

That’s where the discipline comes in. Part of what makes gratitude work is the cultivation of thankfulness. It is the act of being thankful every day, of finding things that spark joy every week. In order to get the greatest benefits from something like gratitude (or any other spiritual discipline), you have to do it consistently. Over time. Whether it is easy or not.

That may sound daunting. And I will level with you, there have been times this year that it has felt daunting. And I remain committed to this practice. Practicing any spiritual discipline is an exercise in self-care. And that is what gratitude is for me - self-care. And in a time of stress and struggle - or a global pandemic and political crisis - self-care is a radical act. It is a prioritization of health over wealth, of connection over division. Gratitude has power to change us. And if enough of us practice it, gratitude has the power to change the world.

This week I challenge you to think about what you are grateful for. I will be sharing 5 Gratitudes, things that I am thankful for.

The writer Brene Brown has said that joy is usually readily accessible. All you have to do is pay attention and practice gratitude. I encourage you to do both this week.

Gratitude #1

Sobriety

Today marks 1,682 days since my last drink. This is the longest period of continuous sobriety I have had in the last 35 years. I am extraordinarily grateful for my sobriety for 3 reasons.

I am grateful to be sober because being sober is a daily challenge. One of the most important things you learn in any sobriety program is that sobriety happens one day at a time. I have strung together 1,682 days. There is no guarantee that I will get through today. I think I will. I hope I will. I intend to. And. I don’t know. It feels like it would be easy to dismiss something so fragile. Instead, it is that fragility that makes me appreciate my sobriety. Every day that I am sober is a gift, and I am grateful.

It is a gift because being sober helps me be my best self. I am not good just because I am sober. I have met a lot of sober assholes. And a few of the addicts I know have better hearts than most of what passes for “elites” in this country. Being sober doesn’t make me kind, or patient, or loving, or gentle. But I am none of those things UNLESS I am sober. I am not a fun drunk. I mean, maybe I am for a while, but it gets real dark real quick. In order for me to be who I want to be, I have to be sober. So I am grateful that sobriety gives me that chance.

Finally, I am grateful for my sobriety because without it, I don’t have anything else to be grateful for. Addictions are demanding things. They will take everything from you. Someone I was in a group with once said that she made a list of all the things that she would never do just to get high. In the end, she told us, it was just a checklist of all the things that she ended up doing for her addiction. Addiction takes friends, family, jobs, self-respect, health, sanity, and on a long enough timeline addiction takes your life. Being sober literally keeps me alive. That seems like an important thing to be grateful for.

Because even when the news is heavy and the day is long and the virus numbers rise, if you are here, and have the ability to connect with others and share their burden and have them take a bit of yours, then the world can feel a little brighter. You can see the good.

And you can give thanks for it.

Gratitude #2

Family

I mean, you all saw this one coming right?

The one thing that I am consistently and always grateful for is my family. Not necessarily my extended family. True story about my extended family - the last time we all went to Texas for a visit with my extended family was about 7 years ago. We went to my aunt’s house for a big cookout. All my aunts and uncles and cousins were there. Shortly after we arrived someone said something about one of my cousins, her husband, and her husband’s dad having been on the Maury Povich show for one of those “you are / you are not the father” episodes. I was kind of dumbstruck. “Wait, you were on Maury?” I asked. “Umm, yeah,” she said, and then proceeded to cue up the episode for us all to watch. It was super cringy. My extended family is... unique.

While I I have generally positive regard for my extended family (and all that comes with it), my relationship with them is mostly strained. I don’t have much contact with them, and they don’t really talk to me. This is mainly because most of that relationship was conducted by and through my mother. Here is something you should know about narcissists - they love to control information flow. They want to be the conduit for conversation. For years my mother wouldn’t give me my brother’s phone number, or give him mine. In order to talk to one another we had to talk through her. This enabled her to control access, which was important to her. She did the same with my extended family. Now that she is gone, it has been years since I had a meaningful conversation with them. We are strangers to one another. My biological dad is long dead and my mom’s third husband (the good step-dad) also died while I was in Korea. I don’t have much contact with either’s family.

All this means that my wife and my kids have taken on outsized meaning for me. They are - for me - the first branches of a new tree. We are growing our own family tree, and we are the first generation. All that came before feels distant. 3 of my kid’s 4 grandparents are dead. The other lives hundreds of miles away and is in declining health. Barb and I don’t have parents to lean on for help or guidance or support. We have had to build the plane as we fly it.

All of this means that when I say I am grateful for my family, I mean it in a deep, generational sense. Yes, our family is fun and we love to laugh and there is a lot of drama and a lot of work and there is always so much happening. We are boisterous and noisy and all of us are a little moody sometimes. A lot of times. It’s who we are.

And it is my family. My connection to the world. I have so often felt cut off from the rest of my family, I have become deeply committed to making this one work. There isn’t a back up plan. And I don’t need one.

And for that, I am grateful.

Gratitude #3

Friends

When I was in the Army, we used to talk about 3AM friends.

3AM friends are the people that you can call at 3 o’clock in the morning, tell them that you are in trouble, and be assured that they will show up. They may have questions, they may have concerns, and they may have criticisms, but 3AM friends save all those. They just show up. Ready for whatever. They are there to fight with you, laugh with you, cry with you. 3AM friends will help you pack your bags, help you sober up, or jump start your car.

3AM friends are always there. No matter what.

I was lucky to have a couple of Army buddies - Will and Justin (and yes, the names of our sons are not an accident) - who were 3AM friends. And both of them got me out of trouble more than once. After I left the military and moved to Chapel Hill, however, 3AM friends proved a lot harder to come by.

I spent a few years feeling really disconnected and lonely. I had lots of acquaintances, but no one I would have called at 3 in the morning. Hell, I didn’t have many people I would call at 3 in the afternoon. It was a really hard time. And I didn’t really know how to fix it.

Around that time, our church had its annual retreat to Blowing Rock, at the place where my family and I stayed this past weekend in fact. The theme of the retreat was friendship. As I sat listening to one of the pastors talking about friendships and saw everyone kind of nodding along, I snapped. “I don’t have any friends,” I said. Everyone slowly turned and looked at me. Like in the movies. I went on to explain how hard it was for someone with mental health challenges to be vulnerable, and how hard it was to even say out loud how lonely I felt.

I heard a voice from behind me. “I will be your friend.” It was Michael, and he did become one of my very best friends. A 3AM friend. Michael was also a vet, he had served in the Air Force. Michael was also a recovering addict. And that was where our similarities ended. Michael is from North Carolina. He is black and gay. When he offered to be my friend he was living in a sober living house in Chapel Hill. He is now the head of LGBTQ ministries for the Unitarian Church. Not *a* Unitarian Church. *THE* Unitarian Church, the national denomination.

He wasn’t the only one who became my friend that day. I became close with several other church members who were there that day. And something else happened too. I learned that friendship starts with being vulnerable. It starts with being able to say “I am struggling and I need help.” And when I did that, I found that I was surrounded by people who were more than willing to be there for me.

I am grateful that my circle has grown well beyond Michael. I have lots and lots of people in my lifeboat these days. And I am grateful for every single one of them. I am grateful to them for hearing me, and seeing me, and valuing me. And for giving ME the chance to be there for them.

I literally wouldn’t be here without my friends.

So. If you ever get a call from me (or someone else important to you) at 3AM, I hope you will answer the phone. Because, in the end, our connection with others is what really matters.

Gratitude #4

Community

I grew up in and around the town of Stephenville, Texas (population 21,247 - about twice what it was when I grew up there). It is a small town in Central Texas and is known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World” because of the high number of very successful professional rodeo athletes and also “Cradle of Champions” because of it’s unparalleled run of high school football success that produced state championships, NFL players, and multiple college head coaches. Stephenville was (and is) where most of my extended family lived. I spent the first 15 or so years of my life within a 50 mile radius of the town. It had been my family’s home (on both sides) for generations. I was completely grounded in the place. It was the only home I knew.

And I hated it.

Stepheville was my childhood. And my childhood was... not great. There was a lot of struggle and a lot of unhappiness and abuse. Of course, more than one thing can be true at once, and nothing is ever just one thing. There was also joy and freedom and fun in my childhood too. I was surrounded by horses and cows and country. I learned to shoot and fish. My extended family was caring and loving in its own way. But most of my memories are negative. Especially those that were the most impactful.

In the 20 years or so between when I left Stephenville and ended up in Chapel Hill, I lived in places all over the world. From southwest Georgia to Atlanta to Korea, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and Fort Bragg. My situation was always changing, and I never lived in one house for very long. I learned that the incredible diversity of experiences I had accumulated were actually a kind of superpower - I had the ability to connect with all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. I was able to get to know people quickly and easily.

And I was still lonely. Lonely because for all the people I knew, there were frighteningly few who knew ME. Or who I knew in anything beyond superficial ways. I had lots of acquaintances, but no friends. I had faces I recognized, but no community. I had glimpses of it, but only glimpses.

That came to a head in 2016, when I got so lost and felt so alone, I began to believe that the world would be better off without me. That led to a crisis and, eventually, a suicide attempt.

It was after that incident (and all the emotional, physical and legal drama that went with it) that I began to realize how much community I had been surrounded with. How many people there were here who truly loved and cared about me. I was surrounded by my church community, my PTA community, and even people I thought barely knew me. Everyone was encouraging and supportive. Yeah, there were a handful of judgmental assholes, and that hurt, but they stood out as glaring exceptions, not the rule.

Chapel Hill is a deeply imperfect place. It has some glaring blind spots. We think we are better than we often are. It is growing and changing and becoming, and sometimes that is hard. Some of the people here are full of shit.

And.

This is the place that put me back together when I was broken. These are the people who wrapped their arms around me when I was at my worst and said “it’s gonna be okay.” This is where my church is. The schools and teachers who I LOVE and would do anything for. A place where elected leaders are neighbors and really, truly care about creating a better home for everyone, even if we sometimes disagree about how to do it.

For a long time, despite my generally negative feelings, when people asked where I was from I said Stephenville, TX. It was where I was born, where I grew up. And it was the place that gave me all my anxieties and struggles. It felt like home for most of my life.

Nowadays when people ask me where I am from, I don’t say Stephenville anymore. That place has receded to somewhere I used to be, people I used to know. It will always have a place. But it’s not my home. It is not where I am from.

I am from Chapel Hill, NC. The real Orange County. I wasn’t born here. I didn’t go to school here. I am not a Tar Heel, born or bred. But this is the place that loved me at my worst. These are the people who helped turn on the light when I was in darkness. It is home. MY home.

I won’t stop asking it to be better. And I won’t stop loving the people who live here. And as agitated as I may get with it sometimes, I won’t be leaving anytime soon.

I have found my community. And for that, I give thanks.

Gratitude #5

My Readers

There is a strain of belief within the Christian tradition that suggests that our greatest blessings are found in struggle. It is struggle, it is believed, that brings us closer to the image of Christ crucified. We are closest to god, the reasoning goes, when we are suffering the most.

This belief has led to some rather extreme examples of people putting themselves through some pretty dramatic forms of self-abnegation. This dates back to the earliest days of the church. In the first and second century AD there arose castration cults - groups of pious young men who willingly castrated themselves to become more pure.

That seems... extreme. I am not sure that I am completely on board with the idea that we are most holy when we suffer, and I am certainly not going to castrate myself to find out. However, there is something to the idea that sometimes things that are hard can still show us wonderful things. After all, two things can be true at the same time, and nothing is ever one thing.

The pandemic, and all that has come with it, has been extremely challenging for so many of us. Our family is insulated by privilege. We have had steady paychecks and health care and we have the flexibility to work from home and support our kids. We have the resources to get what we need - from toilet paper to technology - to make the pandemic manageable. And. It has still been a challenge for us. We all still struggle with the impacts of the isolation, the anxiety, and the loneliness.

When we were at Blowing Rock this weekend, at one point we were walking from our cabin to the dining area. There was another family walking along the same trail that had a boy about Justin’s age. They walked along side each other for a minute, just looking. Then they began to run together, laughing and talking about racing to the next stop. It was breathtaking, and so full of spontaneous joy. It was the first time Justin has played with another kid his age in 9 months. It was a simple footrace, maybe the least remarkable event of childhood. And it meant everything. Because time and relationships have been so warped by all the things that have happened this year.

I started writing this daily update in late April, about a month and half into lockdown. I did it initially to help me process what was happening, to provide an outlet for all the conversations I wasn’t having in person. I had no idea if anyone would want to read it, or if they would like it. I felt completely uncomfortable asking people to pay for it. I was petrified of rejection.

And that hasn’t happened at all. Your support has meant so much to me. I actually can’t even put it into words. Ironic, I know.

Please know that writing this update every day brings me great joy. I especially have appreciated all of you who have reached out to tell me what this means to you. THAT has been something beautiful that has come out of a trying year. Thank you all for reading. Thank you SO much for those who have become paying subscribers. That is maybe the coolest thing that has ever happened to me, non wife and kids edition.

Thank you so much for taking this journey with me.

I look forward to seeing where we head next.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber.

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.

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