When Life is Hard

It's one of those times.

When I walked my dog yesterday morning, it was -16 degrees. And back home, our furnace is broken. It's leaking for the second time in six months, the temporary fix having given way and forced us onto the internet to look blindly at every review for an oil boiler we could find before taking that big financial plunge and buying a new one. To reduce the leaking, we're avoiding using hot water except when absolutely necessary and relying entirely on our pellet stove to heat the house.

The pellet stove can turn the downstairs into a summer oasis, but the upstairs (where the bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchen are) can't get above a balmy 59 degrees. It's not too bad with a hat and scarf on, but putting that first toe onto the floor in the mornings is rough. And then, recently it's been doing weird things that make us concerned that it might shut itself down (causing the temperature in the house to drop and possibly our pipes to freeze) or catch on fire while we're not home.

And in addition to our heating issues and some other personal things, one of our garage doors is broken. And the door of our freezer is popping open almost imperceptibly each time we shut the refrigerator, something which we only discovered after it was slightly ajar all night, resulting in a major energy waste and a bunch of freezer-burned food. And the dog has had an upset stomach for reasons we can't identify. And my phone keeps shutting itself down every time I use it to take a photo. And I have a stye on my left eye.

Life feels so hard right now.

I'm overwhelmed by the number of things needing my attention and the financial outlay required of us. It seems that we're constantly rearranging our schedules to be home for a repair man or to take the dog to the vet. 

Right now the tiniest bother sends me over the edge.

This morning, when my closed toothpaste tube fell off the counter onto the bathroom floor, I yelled out, "OH COME ON" and huffed and stomped my foot, incensed that I had to reach down and pick it up.

It feels like crap, being this angry and overwhelmed, thinking the world has it out for you.

Before I lose it completely, I've been experimenting with a very gentle gratitude practice.

In the moment when I am most irate and overwhelmed about a particular thing - for instance, the broken boiler - I stop and ask myself one question: Is there anything in this situation that I can have gratitude for? Anything at all?

Usually, I can come up with something. At least one thing. In the case of the boiler, I came up with more than one.

I'm grateful that our boiler gave us a warning before dying completely so that we have time to buy a new one and weren't left without any heat or hot water.

I'm grateful that, though it wasn't in our budget, we have the money to buy a new boiler.

I'm grateful that we live in a place where someone will come out and install a contraption in our house that will heat the whole place with the push of a button.

I practice it with other things too - the garage door, for instance.

I'm grateful that we have a garage - what a luxury!

I'm grateful that someone will come out and repair the motor to our garage.

I'm grateful that we can afford to have someone come out and repair the motor for our garage.

And, most of the time, it works. I feel better, less cranky, less overwhelmed.

It doesn't always work, though. Sometimes I can't find anything to be grateful about. And that's okay. That's where I am in that moment. It's not because there isn't anything to be grateful about. It's because at that particular juncture, I can't get out from under the negative feelings to see the good.

I'm human. And expecting myself to be something other than human - some superhuman person who feels gratitude in every moment of my life - is a recipe for disaster.

So when I can find the gratitude, I brush off the welcome mat and bring it some tea. And in those moments, I'm grateful for gratitude.

Here's the other thing about this gentle gratitude practice - it's not a moral thing. Perhaps being grateful is the moral high ground. But focusing on morality isn't going to help you when you're down in the dregs of a life-is-hard mental meltdown. Being grateful because you should be grateful doesn't work in my experience. It just packs on another couple emotions - guilt and shame - to the anxiety, anger, overwhelm, depression that I'm already feeling. No, if you practice gratitude, practice it because it feels good. Be self-serving about it.

When you can stop long enough to recognize the overwhelm/life-is-hard spiral, be good to yourself and ask whether there's anything you can be grateful for.

If there's not, then set the question aside. Don't berate yourself. Just acknowledge that right now is just too hard and try again later. But if you can find something to be grateful for, sit with that gratitude. Honor it. Experience the moment of peace when your mind shifts away from anxiety.

It won't change the situation. Life will still be broken and expensive and wrong and not how you wanted it to be and maybe, sometimes, even devastating. But in that moment of gratitude, some little part of you may also know that life is miraculous and kind and beautiful.

One last note on practicing gratitude: it's a very personal thing. Because we're all human, experiencing our emotions in our own ways, and because a morality push rarely works on the gratitude front, it's rarely effective to tell another person to be grateful. One of my biggest pet peeves is the "at least" commentary in response to something I'm dealing with. I tell someone that my hair looks like crap that day, and they respond with "At least you have hair. You should be grateful for that." I say that my car is broken down, and they respond, "At least you have a car to get fixed. You should be grateful for that."

And it's not that I shouldn't be grateful. I should be - there are lots of people in worse-off situations. But like I said earlier, gratitude as a moral imperative rarely works for me. I just end up feeling ashamed and guilty (and annoyed with the "at least" person). Gratitude as a gentle reminder to release, if only for a moment, the negativity that is holding me hostage? That is helpful.

It's funny to me to be sharing a post about practicing gratitude. I can be the complainiest of the complainers, and I often feel like overwhelmed is my constant state of being. But that means I have a lot of opportunities to practice pulling myself out of the depths.

And when I'm able to, when I can get out from under it all to see the good, I am so grateful.

p.s. Practicing gratitude is constantly practice, at least for me.