On December 31, 2020, I woke up in an exceptionally good mood, feeling grateful.
Now at first glance that would seem quite obvious. It was after all the final day of the one of the most personally and collectively challenging years in recent history. I assume that many of you were feeling the same way because wherever I turned to on social or traditional media the “good riddance to 2020” message was everywhere, accompanied by the assumption that there is no way that 2021 could be worse than what we experienced in 2020. But if you assume that this was the reason for my attitude, you would be wrong, so I invite you to take a journey with me today, deeper into my gratitude.
As with you, my 2020 was filled with personal and universally shared challenges. As I sit here today, reflecting on a dramatic year, I could easily focus on events that attempted to define me. Events like health challenges, financial uncertainty, isolation, disruption of normal life, cancelled plans, unfulfilled dreams, social unrest, political and cultural acrimony, and an overall sense of uncertainty and despair. It is easy at times like this to focus on all of the negativity because its voice is very loud and demands attention; as they say, “good news doesn’t sell newspapers.”
But for me, as I hope for you, there were many positive events that occurred in 2020 that can counterbalance all of the negativity and perceived tragedy if I allow them to. In my case the year 2020 included the birth of two healthy grandsons, a deeper connection with all of our children, positive progress in my wife’s and my health, and time to grow personally and as a couple.
In the midst of the war-torn battlefield that was 2020, flowers still bloomed, birds still sang, and the sun rose every morning. My ability to see (and smell) those “flowers” in the midst of adversity helped to get me through the most challenging days, and yet there is more.
Beyond “counter-balancing gratitude” which I found in the good things of life, I now have the benefit of hindsight which allows me to see the outcomes, purposes, and blessings of much of what I experienced in an extraordinarily challenging year. Some of these examples include:
The blessing of isolation is that I have had more time to reflect, think, read, and write.
The blessing of facing cancer is that I have learned to be a better partner with my wife
The blessing of wearing a mask is that I haven’t had a cold all year
The blessing of not having a traditional holiday season is that I have been less harried and, as a result, we got our Christmas cards out early
The blessing of financial uncertainty is developing better budgeting skills and learning to rely more on God for our daily bread
The blessing of a personal health scare is eating healthier, losing weight, and feeling better
And this is just a partial list.
This “hindsight gratitude” usually comes to me after a horrific event is long over, as I seek the lesson and purpose of my suffering. Perceiving 2020 in this way helps me eliminate bitterness, grow from the experience, and hopefully avoid self-inflicted suffering in the future. Hindsight gratitude is in a sense about making lemonade when life serves me lemons, and yet there is a deeper level of gratitude that I have pursued this year, being grateful for the adversity itself, which is akin to the lemons being so sour that no amount of sugar can make them sweet, and still finding the goodness contained therein.
Alma, a prophet in the Book of Mormon, shared the following invitation as one of several ways of achieving peace and happiness in life:
“… always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive.” - Alma 7:23
The key word in his counsel is “whatsoever.” Alma is teaching that we need to seek gratitude not only in the counter balancing events or the hindsight outcomes, but in whatsoever comes our way, even in the moment of adversity that we didn’t expect, never wanted, and don’t understand. This is what I have come to refer to as “unconditional gratitude,” and it is what I have struggled to practice throughout 2020. This kind of gratitude ultimately helps to define who I am and what I do reactively and proactively. Knowing that it’s all good and part of God’s plan for me, makes it easier to greet adversity calmly and even with curiosity in the moment.
Prior to 2020 I began a practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal. It is the first thing I do when I get up in the morning and consists of:
Expressing gratitude for one thing in my life
Stating what my gratitude says about me
And finally, determining how I will continue to manifest that gratitude during the upcoming day.
This has been a useful practice for me, not because I always act upon my gratitude or even remember it all day, but rather because it teaches me to recognize gratitude in the moment, “whatsoever” and whenever it comes my way. So, as I conclude a remarkable year and embark upon a new one, here is my gratitude.
I am grateful for all that I have experienced, the lessons that I’ve learned, and the awareness that 2021 may or may not be better than 2020.
It says that I seek to be unconditionally grateful for everything that comes my way.
And so today I will share that unconditional gratitude with you and everyone else with whom I come in contact.
Finally, as I look forward to the year to come, my intention (dare I say resolution) is to continue this practice of unconditional gratitude. In so doing I will choose to identify myself more by my gratitude, and less by my adversity or anything else that may be part of my life in 2021.
Happy New Year!
We'd like to thank Alan Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity.