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Crazy modern living: Simple tool can help put it in perspective

MARQUETTE – We operate at a speed in our culture that is giving us collective whiplash.

It feels to me as though my whole messy life is balancing on a point like a circus act. The elephant knee is quivering above an inflated ball, which is ready to burst under the animals, jugglers and acrobats teetering above.

I long for a peaceful routine that gives me confidence and a sense of control. But instead I’m improvising every day, sprinting to the finish line and collapsing.

I don’t really have a plan. I do the work in front of me, give it all I’ve got, try (with mixed results) to not be afraid or agitated and then start all over the next day.

It’s not so bad. In fact, sometimes I appreciate the fast pace and productivity and the pride I can take in it. But I really wonder how everyone else is doing, day after day, year after year.

I have a friend, a social worker, who works 80 hours a week at three jobs, caring for struggling kids and adults in very stressful environments. She has suffered six concussions from violent incidents, spent numerous nights by hospital beds and taken countless midnight crisis calls.

She gives everything she has and more, and despite this, she lives on the brink of poverty. I actually have a lot of friends suffering a similar strain, and know it’s not an isolated problem. Something is wrong with this picture.

And every once in a while, someone breaks. Something terrible happens and someone can’t go on – and we wonder why the suicide rate is climbing, why addiction rates are through the roof, why many are so full of misdirected rage.

As I get older, I’m finding the truth to be much stranger than fiction – both in my own life and on a broader scale. From watching films and documentaries, I’ve learned too many uncomfortable truths.

Truths about the horrors of our food system, pollution and the future of life on our planet. Truths like the Catholic coverup of systemic child molestation, like the visceral realities of endless war, like the reckless gambling of Wall Street bankers and how it continues with potentially perilous consequences. Truths about our corrupt political system and the bizarre, discordant contrasts between real life and the media.

And I have to keep going. But how?

I struggle with eating right, getting enough exercise and getting enough rest. But in spite of stumbling and generally failing with these efforts, I’ve also been trying this one simple practice that is enormously helpful.

Every night – or every night I can remember to do it – I sit and think about five things for which I’m grateful.

Some people are annoyed by a positive spin, and I understand that a rosy-eyed, pollyanna perspective doesn’t always feel realistic or truthful.

So I first and foremost try to be honest with myself and genuine in my assessment, but there is always some small silver lining.

When I start, I’ll struggle for a moment to think of the first thing. But by item no. 5, I’m overwhelmed by a sense that I could keep listing hundreds more things – big and small – that make my life incredibly blessed.

When I get in touch with what went right with my day, with the blessings in my life, that is when I can finally pause, rest and feel at peace.

Studies show this practice leads to a host of benefits, like a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotions like joy, optimism, and happiness; acting with more generosity and compassion; and feeling less lonely and isolated.

Gratitude doesn’t mean we discount or dismiss the grief or pain we may be carrying. It doesn’t mean everything’s fine with the world. It just means we’re looking at the whole picture, not just our negativity bias.

The social worker I mentioned is already the kind of person who somehow never complains and practices boatloads of gratitude. It’s just one reason she is such an extraordinary human being.

But I am glad to report she is making some changes and giving back to herself, and I hugely admire her courage in doing so. I know that for people like her, personal boundaries and self-care are more challenging than finding the silver lining.

But she would still agree that gratitude gives us perspective to improve how we respond to difficult events and people, and it can be one simple way we do care for ourselves.

It’s one tool in the toolbox, but if implemented on a broad scale, intentional thanksgiving could be a powerful agent for positive social change.

These days, we need all the help we can get, as we all continue to embark every day on this strange experiment called life.

Editor’s note: Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.