One of the many self-care practices I generally implement when going through dark times is a gratitude practice. This can be as simple as keeping a gratitude journal where I write down a list of five things that I am grateful for from the day before I go to bed. It can also be as extensive as using my 101-bead gratitude “necklace” to count off 101 things I’m grateful for from the day.
Often I implement this practice once I’m already down in the midst of the darkness when I’m trying to climb my way back out of the pit. This time I was already using my daily gratitude journal practice before the downward slide even began. It’s interesting to notice the difference.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
Belief and faith are words that tend to be used interchangeably in many religious circles, but I think of them differently. Belief is the holding of a mental proposition to be true. Faith is trusting in something or someone even without proof.
For me, belief comes from the head. Faith comes from the heart.
“Secret of Adulthood: If I want to ask a lot of myself, I need to give a lot to myself.” ~Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project frequently shares her Secrets of Adulthood on her blog and on Twitter. These are things she’s learned over the years about how life works. The one posted above is one I encountered today on her Twitter feed.
Like many of her Secrets of Adulthood, it sounds rather obvious, but it’s something that I don’t do very well at living into. I tend to expect a lot of myself but think that it’s selfish to give anything to myself. The problem is that when I don’t fill my own tank, I have nothing to give to others. Therefore, I continually disappoint others and myself with my inability to do what is expected of me.
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” ~Albert Camus
I’ve run across this quote numerous times; the most recent was from a friend who posted it on Twitter with the hashtag #depression. It fits well with my experience of what depression is like.
The simple tasks and activities that most people take for granted as “normal” become tremendously hard work. Whether it’s meeting people for lunch or keeping the house clean or cooking dinner or running errands, these every day activities suddenly seem to take more energy than I have to give.
My work group recently began reading some of the scripture passages from the Daily Office Lectionary each morning as part of a group prayer time. Even though we do not follow the Morning Prayer service (we just do the scripture readings and offer prayer for those in our lives who are in need), this practice gradually led to me resuming the practice of doing the Evening Prayer service on my own each night and now to doing full Morning Prayer on weekend mornings.
As I’ve begun this latest journey through the dark lands, I’ve been struck by how often the liturgy of the Evening Prayer service talks about light and darkness. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising since it is intended to be read during the hours when day shifts into night, but I had not really noticed this language before now.
“Depression is something that makes you lose your sight.” ~Michael Schenker
Dark night. Black cloud. Thick fog. Darkness. Shadowlands. Blackness. Black sun.
All of these common ways of describing depressing describe conditions in which we can’t see very well. Our sight is dimmed in darkness, fog, and shadows. Familiar objects take on distorted appearances. Color is washed out. We can’t see where we’re going, and we can’t even see our current surroundings with any clarity. Everything appears gray and misshapen.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” ~Mary Oliver
I’ve always loved this quote because it’s taken me years to understand that the darkness in my own life is a gift. It often does not feel that way at the time, but it is a gift nevertheless. And recognizing it as such in the moment, even when I can’t see it, makes the darkness easier to bear.
“Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” ~Ecclesiastes 7:3-4
We were discussing Biblical Wisdom Literature today in class, which includes the book of Ecclesiastes. In general, this book conveys a rather disillusioned and pessimistic view of the meaning of life, or the lack thereof. It was obvious from the class discussion that many people find this book disturbing, and I have my moments when I’d agree.
I also have plenty of times when I’m grateful for its inclusion in the canon because I find it comforting.
I had read many times about the power of gratitude, but the first time I really discovered its power for myself was when I used it as a practice to help ward off depression. I have a chronic tendency toward depression, and my practice of self-care has been largely crafted over the years to keep me from tumbling into that pit. I have found that eating well, getting enough sleep, protecting my down time, journaling, and being active are all necessary for me to keep that familiar demon at bay.
My gratitude beads
But those self-care tactics aren’t always enough. I remember a number of years ago when all of the usual self-care techniques just didn’t seem to be working and I was desperately reaching for something to keep me from tumbling into a major depression, I read (yet again) about the power of gratitude and finally decided to give it a try. I made myself a set of “gratitude beads” that I began to use every day. I used this string of 101 beads much like one would use a rosary except that I came up with a unique thing to be grateful for with each bead.
The weight of a straw is small—so small that it’s hard to imagine that it could ever do any damage. But if you pile enough straws together, the weight adds up. It adds until one day the addition of just one more straw is all it takes to break the camel’s back.
Life is like that too. Things that would be minor annoyances or frustrations in normal times can be lethal when they hit on top of an already enormous pile. We’ve all seen people who “over react” in some way to some situation and wondered what their problem was, when really the situation we observed was only the final straw that broke through their control, and the reaction we see is more to the whole pile of other straws that we didn’t see than to the one we did.