The power of gratitude

We’ve all had our priorities shifted here in Christchurch by recent events. Once the fact really sank in that we live in a place where any second, with absolutely no warning, the earth can rise up roaring under our feet and the walls come tumbling down, we had to accept certain realities, like ultimate lack of control, quite differently.

I mean, sure we can control our day to day realities up to a point, but the big things, the life and death stuff, that’s pretty much out of our hands. That’s the same for everyone, no matter where we live or what we do.

But there’s something we can control no matter what our personal situation. Our own response to life. This isn’t easy. In fact it’s probably the hardest thing of all. Often it feels easier to move mountains than control our own minds.

But here in Christchurch, when we feel so helpless in many ways, shifting our priorities to focus on the things we actually can have some small hope of controlling has been a very healthy thing for a lot of people I know.

I’ve been reading some interesting writing recently about how to grow wellbeing and happiness in our lives, and more specifically, the power of gratitude to increase happiness. I have a small daughter, so I’m particularly keen to teach her how she can nurture happiness in her own life. One thing many of these writers emphasise is how making a daily habit of stating things we are grateful for can create a sense of well being, and encourage the habit of savouring life.

Some people keep gratitude journals. And I am a stone cold sucker for nice stationery, so when I saw this puppy, well, the idea of keeping a book of things I am thankful for seemed all the more enticing.

But we as a family have chosen instead to go round the table at supper and ask each other what we are grateful for. Initially it felt contrived. Some days I struggled to think of anything I was thankful for. I was tired, I felt grumpy, work had been hard and I still had three hours of writing to do once I put the small person to bed. What had I got to be grateful for?

Well of course the answer in these situations is always, “so much, you self pitying twerp!”

As soon as I realised that, I begin to remember the good things, the little moments that illuminated a difficult day. I’m not talking about the bigger picture stuff, like the fact that here and now I am incredibly lucky just to have a job, a house and my family around me (although some days, believe me, when I say I feel grateful for these things, I really mean it). I’m thinking about the gilded instants that lift the whole. The moment when, walking home, the sun came out and the bellbirds started singing. The postcard that arrived from a friend. The hug that my daughter gave me when I picked her up from preschool. The little beautiful things. I’m grateful for them.

Lyttelton – Do Something Beautiful

Well now, it’s June already which for those of us living in Aotearoa means we are entering into Matariki, sometimes referred to as the Maori New Year.   I might post more about Matariki shortly but for now I want to point out that it is a time for reflection, remembrance, connection with family/whanau and new beginnings.  We will make a couple of posts on this theme this month as those of you who have been following our trials and tribulations might have realised that we have passed our 12 month goal of being a car-free family during May.  More on that soon, as well as the end of the experiment… So in the spirit of Matariki I’m reprinting here the following article I wrote for the Lyttelton News – our local newspaper which comes monthly as part of the Akaroa Mail.  It appeared on the front page of the Friday 11th March edition.  Thank you to Margaret Jefferies for inviting me to submit.

Last year Margaret Jefferies of Project Lyttelton sent me a superbly eloquent definition of sustainability: the possibility of life flourishing forever.  In its simplicity it summed up perfectly for me, what I believe is a worthy aspiration for our community.  Inherent in the concept of flourishing are all the ingredients of a life well lived, and a strong community, such as: sustainability, engagement, inclusiveness, meaning,  resilience and well-being.  I like the definition also because there is room for doubt.  The possibility of flourishing.  It’s not a given, it suggests we must take responsibility and approach the goal of sustainability (flourishing) with purpose.  It is possible, there is hope.  How we do it is up to us.  It is in the act of seeking that we may indeed flourish.

Right now, as a community we have been faced with a crisis of major proportions.  We will move through the stages of emergency response, recovery and eventually, revitalisation.  It is how we approach these stages and frame our perspective that determines the quality of the experiences we will have.  You could say that this is the measure of our resilience.  To put it simply, we can choose to see the earthquake either as purely a catastrophe – the end of many things – rebuilding in haste, without vision, walking backwards into the future or we can acknowledge the tragedy and begin to approach it as an opportunity to re-imagine our community and work to create the flourishing Lyttelton of our dreams.  There is no right time for this to happen.  No rules or timeframes, it is up to us, together to work it out.

Lyttelton is resilient.  I know this because we have so far made it through two major earthquakes, the second a genuine disaster for our town, and still, here we are – working together, helping each other, asking questions, talking about the future.  If we are to not only endure and survive but to flourish, we must mix in the best of our resilience with a sustainable approach.  Moving forward in a considered way, with vision, be bold and with nothing less than flourishing as our goal.  And while we are waiting to get on that bus – let’s do something beautiful.

How do I know I’m Flourishing?

At the regular spoken word & poetry open mic night that I host we have a kind of unwritten rule about disclaimers.  That is, we don’t have no truck with them.  The people don’t want to hear your excuses.

I wonder if the blogosphere has the same principle.  That is, it’s poor form to start off a post apologising for not posting lately.  I suppose it’s a pretty boring and obvious thing to say isn’t it?  And there’s nothing more tedious than telling people all about how busy you’ve been.  Especially when they didn’t ask.

Especially if there’s no one reading…

But then again isn’t the entire blogosphere all about telling you stuff you didn’t ask about?

I bet you didn’t know you wanted to know all about it.

Weeelll.  Enough said.  Here we are.

So how has our little battle with convenience been going?  Thank you for asking.  It’s been sick.  And I don’t mean in the Australian use of the word ‘seeck’.  Not even ‘fully seeck’.  I mean the kind of sick that sees you making your nostrils raw while simultaneously destroying every hanky in the house and resorting to toilet paper, scrap paper and old t-shirts if necessary.  Also the kind of sick that has you exploding out every orifice normally reserved for more genteel activities.

Think Neil from The Young Ones.

Such has been the stuff of our winter.  Seraphine’s first winter attending pre-school where they should advertise free immune system load testing.  We’re now deep into spring and staring down the barrel of a good, hot summer and still I seem to be battling sore throats and leaky noses.  Not all my hankies have survived.

In real life, I spend a lot of time thinking, talking about and promoting wellbeing.  In particular us mental health promoters are taken with this idea of flourishing. What does it look like?  What does it mean for us and our society?  And how do we get there?  How do I know I’m flourishing?

Despite what I was saying earlier, I think I’m the fittest I’ve been in years.  At least, before the last week or so of flu-imposed inactivity.  I also find it doesn’t take much to set me back a notch, having now not played football for a couple of weeks.  I put the fitness down not only to playing the beautiful game again but having the hill walking routine imposed everyday, commiting to using the stairs at work and cycling more.  In fact I was feeling so good I volunteered to participate in this.  A little bit of fitness going to my head.  Sheesh.  But it’s a clue.

The point is, I do feel good.  And lately being car-free has not been easy.  We’ve seen off the worst that winter could throw at us (although no snow this year) but now the weather is picking up rapidly and the great wide open is beckoning.  The far-off, secluded little bays on the peninsula; the wild West Coast; my sister’s little slice of Rohan in the mountains.  Easy to survive not having a car when the best activity is red wine and a DVD.

It’s peak season now for renting cars so it’s not so cheap to get one to travel in.  Even so, we’re planning on renting something for a couple of weeks over Christmas while nearly the entire House of Davidson visits us.  It’s going to be a BIG family Christmas, and I’m looking forward to that too.  There’s so much to look forward to actually.  And that’s another clue.

Seraphine is a rambunctious little toddler now.  The days are getting hot.  There’s family coming to stay.  Christmas is approaching.  I’ve got a NEW tent (more on that).  I’ve only used my hanky twice today.  Yip, I’m feeling pretty positive.  It seems like ages ago now but it’s not that long since we started this blog and I wrote optimistically about Loving The Effort.  And it’s become a sort of personal mantra for the tough times.  In fact it’s the second most common tag for our posts (after ‘Car-Free’) and it’s kind of the apotheosis of our thesis around defying convenience.

Earlier in the week I was lying in a hot bath trying to revive myself enough to go to work and facilitate a workshop on this whole darn flourishing idea.  I’d initially thought to cancel the workshop but as I lay soaking in the hot, deep bath (oh, thank you Elizabeth!) and even though I was quite ill I kept thinking about the 20 or so people who were coming to the workshop and all the challenges they’d faced to get to where they were.  I thought about loving the effort and how, despite currently feeling a bit crook, I was actually doing OK and I realised that our message about flourishing was about just this kind of thing – regardless of the times when we get sick or the other limitations we might face, and we all face these at some point in our lives, we can and sometimes do, flourish.  But not enough of us.

Anyway, whether it was the force of this idea or the restorative power of a hot bath, strong coffee and paracetamol, I made it to the workshop.  We talked all about it and what it meant for each of us and decided we thought it a pretty damn good goal for society.

I then went home again and collapsed.

So.  My thoughts on some of the ways I know personally I’m flourishing:

When loving the effort means you’re not just gritting your teeth through what you must get through but actually seeking out new challenges and enlarging your efforts.

When despite currently being unwell you see the bigger picture of your overall wellbeing and fitness and it’s good and getting better.

When you feel like there’s lots to look forward to.

When you’re sick as a dog but you feel compelled to go out and talk to people and hear their good ideas.

When you’ve got no car but you can’t resist buying a flash new tent! Which we got for a song.  Actually that’s not really about flourishing but I’m looking forward to using it!

So anyway, it’s good to be back.