This past week, our family was at the Happiest Place on Earth: Family Camp at La Casa de Maria in Montecito, CA. We’ve been back for three days, but I’m just now coming home to Gabacho Drive, here in sunny San Diego. I’ve been working and cooking and cleaning, but until this afternoon, I was just going through the motions. My head was in the clouds and my heart was broken, with pieces of it scattered across the state, carried off by the people I love. Some of them I’ve known since the day they (or I) were born, some I met just last week.
Heartbreak is a funny thing, because it can happen by Love or sorrow, with tears of joy, or pain. But both kinds take time to heal and regardless of the cause, you are never the same again. After three days of centering prayer and reading, after seeing and talking to my people back home, most of my heart is back in my chest, but not all of of it. That’s one of my favorite things about camp; if your heart is open and you are willing, you never know how you will be put back together again.
- My family goes to Family Camp, but Family Camp isn’t just for my family. Some of us share a name, or DNA, but most of us don’t.
- It is called a Christian family retreat, but that doesn’t mean it’s denominational, evangelical, or fundamentalist. Our “fundamentals” are Love, forgiveness, inclusion, acceptance and healing, as exemplified by Jesus the Christ, but our “good news” is that we’re all in, baby!
- Unlike retreats put on by industry professionals, Family Camp is run by a team of volunteer families who draw on their own gifts, experiences, faith and forty years of tradition to create a safe place for families to draw closer to each other and God.
I had two opportunities to speak and share my ideas this past week, and many opportunities to listen and learn and since you weren’t all at Family Camp with me, I thought I’d share a few of these moments with you. Today will just be something I shared, but I hope to gather a few more thoughts from my friends who also spoke.
The theme for this past week was Seasons: the seasons of the year and the seasons of our life, what they offer us and how we might approach them. We began with Summer, worked our way through Autumn, and Winter before being reborn in Spring. The artwork and presentations were beautiful in really creative and non-professional ways and I don’t mean that as a dis to our team, as much as a reminder that we aren’t putting on a show, so much as creating a loving, but imperfect home.
Our family, along with my brother and his wife, was in charge of talking about Summer, which was perfect. Summer is our season, our jam, our raison d’etre. We are surfers, swimmers, lifeguards. We love water and waves, the sandier and saltier the better. As you can imagine, we talked about Joy; we talked about Abundance; we talked about Sabbath and Gratitude. But we kept it real; we also talked about all the less pleasant seasons that come before summer, the winters when you are frozen by disappointment and fear, and the springs that melt your heart just a little bit. We also admitted the downside of clinging to the summer season and resenting anything that darkens our days. (Mea Culpa!)
For my own growth and benefit, that’s what I tried to focus on in my talk – how to be grateful, everyday, for every moment, and every season, no matter what kind of weather I’m in. It’s a practice I’m working on, all the time, and I thought I’d share it with all of you.
Gratitude for Seasons 2015
This past year, I began studying the mystics from the 17th century Spain – John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila – and while they are beloved by many in the Catholic Church and everyone raves about them, I don’t think most people have actually read them. I think they love the idea of them, the quotes that have been pulled out and put on holy cards, or the saint’s lives they heard about them growing up. I think this is true, because when I actually read John and Theresa’s work, I really struggled with them, especially with their depictions of God. This God they loved so much was a God who would come and then go, who loved them and then left them, who seemed to punish and then reward them. I just didn’t get it. While I understand that is what we feel like God is doing sometimes, it isn’t what I actually believe is true about our unchangeable, all-loving God and so I brought my questions to my spiritual director and after we talked about them for while, she said, “If you want to know what God is actually like, look at nature. If you can find a parallel there, it will be true.”
Now, I don’t know if that is entirely accurate, but I started looking and it did help me see God in a new way, in the joyful nurturing of the small, wild animals in my yard, in the majesty of the NASA photos I follow on Instagram, in the vastness of the ocean I float in, but especially through the seasons. There are times in our year when the sun is closer and there is warmth and abundance and seemingly never-ending days. The nights come, but they are moderate in temperature and short in length. But there are also times when the earth has moved away from the sun and darkness seems to be prevalent, and it is uncomfortably cold, and nothing grows and we struggle to survive and we feel like it’s the end of the line for us and sometimes we feel abandoned and angry, or scared.
But it isn’t the sun (or God) that has changed positions, but the earth (or us) who moved. And it isn’t like the earth moved away because it was bad, or mad, or mistaken, or sinful. It just did; it’s the natural, cosmic pattern; it’s the way the universe works. You can count on it and this pattern is actually the very thing that allows life to exist, for our world and for our own selves to grow and evolve and thrive. Perpetual summer would lead to death, just like a perpetual ice age.
And of course, in addition to summers and winters, there are all the in-between times – the falls and springs that have their own beauty and their own pain, but whatever season we are in, we know that it is not the last season; there is another one right on it’s heels, as soon as we get comfortable and used to the one we’re in, or right when we think we can’t stand it for another day, for better and for worse, the season will change; life will move on.
At the very beginning of our day, we talked about the fact that summer time for a lot of people is about JOY. It’s about moments of unbridled laughter and bare feet and sweet, cold ice cream and family reunions. It’s also about ABUNDANCE – the sense of the “enoughness” of life that comes about in this season – that all the things we really need are actually right here, even if it’s just taking a deep breath standing outside with your feet in the grass and the setting sun on your face. Tim talked a lot about the concept of Sabbath – of learning to take a break and protect your down time, so that each day is filled with the things that really matter. (I’ll catch up on that part later.)
And so if we are in a SUMMER time of abundance and joy and we have the sabbath space and time to reflect, then the natural response of our heart is going to be gratitude. And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Gratitude is one of those words and concepts that has been talked about so much and is so overused that I was tempted to chuck the whole concept.
Kids- How many times have you been told by your parents, “How about a little gratitude? Quit being so ungrateful! Who has a grateful heart?”
Parents – How many times, in your hardest parenting moments, have you heard the voice in your head reminding you how LUCKY you are to have kids, even when they are screaming at the top of their lungs and leaking fluids from every orifice? How grateful you should be for every moment of their young lives, because time flies by? And how you will never get these days back to be grateful for every one of them?
Sometimes, we hear the word and we just go, “ugh.” But Gratitude is so important that I thought I’d try to bring a fresh perspective to it, because it is going to be a theme of the week- finding something to be grateful for, something to appreciate about each season of life we are in – no matter what it is, or what’s going on.
So I went where I always go for good ideas and found a TED talk by David Steindl-Rast, an Austrian Benedictine monk and he asked a really good question of his audience and I’m going to ask it of all of you.
He asked, “Are happy people grateful, or are grateful people happy?”
The answer is YES. They are both true, but not in the way we might originally think. Our default setting, our instincts tell us that if you are happy, you will be grateful. And if you are happy, it’s because you probably have a lot of things going right for you, but that is dead wrong. Some of the most miserable people in the world are the ones who seem to have the most to be happy about! They have all the money, the opportunity, all the privilege, all the connections and fame in the world. Everything the media tells us will make us happy doesn’t move the needle a bit.
And sometimes the happiest people in the world have almost nothing.
Gratitude is the X factor. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you have. If you have gratitude, you can be happy.
You can’t choose to be happy, but you can choose to be grateful and if you start with gratitude, and live in a space of gratefulness, you will be happy.
And summer is a time when it’s easier to be grateful, for many of us anyway and especially most of us under the age of 18, who get to be on summer vacation, or those of us who live in California.
Because gratitude comes in two forms –
Sometimes gratitude happens spontaneously and we call these – Gratitude Events.
A gratitude event is when we receive a gift – something we value – freely. We didn’t earn it, expect it, work for it; it just showed up. So that might be a really generous birthday gift from our parents, or an invitation to the movies and a sleepover from a new friend, or flowers from our spouse, but a Gratitude Event could also be a beautiful sunset, the smile of a newborn baby, or a spontaneous hug and kiss from our normally reserved kid. In those moments, gratitude just springs from our souls. Out of nowhere, a gift was given and our natural response is an upwelling of gratitude.
For me, summer is full of those Gratitude Events. I won’t even list them all here, but you saw a lot of them in Tim’s video. Readers, you don’t have to watch the video, but it does capture some of my very favorite moments of being a part of Team Kirks.
Whatever your internal thermometer is that tells you “your special season” – mine is set to summer. How many of you know what I am talking about? It’s like your Gratitude Event Meter is just pinging over and over again, all day long. How many of you have your gratitude event meter going off the charts in summer? How about Christmas time? Fall? The riot of color in a garden in spring? We all have a season, in the year and in our lives, when it’s easy to be grateful and that’s awesome.
A sharp spike in our Gratitude Meter makes it so easy to be grateful and happy, but it’s unsustainable and so when the events aren’t rolling in, we can tend to get sad, feel deprived, or depressed and that’s a problem. And when it takes more and more to surprise us and make us feel grateful, that’s a problem too. How many of you have friends who seem to have everything they could want, certainly everything you want, and yet, they aren’t happy? They’re Gratitude Event setting is way too high.
That’s why the other type of gratitude is even more important. According to every religion, every spiritual authority, every faith tradition, every positive psychologist,
We need to learn Grateful Living – which is realizing that EVERY moment of our lives is a gift from the Universe, a gift from God.
It’s something we didn’t earn. Every breath we take is a gift, and if we can learn to be grateful for that breath and then move even beyond that, we realize that in every moment we have the opportunity to find something more to be grateful for.
Paul Williams – the guy who wrote “Rainbow Connection,” Kermit’s theme song – is a recovering addict – who’s been sober for 24 years now and he wrote a whole book called Gratitude and Trust and he said that apart from his children, his sobriety – just waking up and breathing and existing on his own, without any assistance from drugs and alcohol – is what he is most proud of. After hitting rock bottom, he said,
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened in my life – the good and the bad.” And that’s the way he lives his life. “If you’re in a car wreck, you’re grateful no one got hurt. If someone got hurt, you’re grateful they didn’t die; if they die, you’re grateful for the chance to know them. It’s expandable – gratitude – one size fits all, so put it in your heart and use it.”
That’s the thing about gratitude. You only need to start with one small ounce of it and it immediately begins to build on itself. If you can find one thing to be grateful for, you can find another and another.
I want to share this poem by Carrie Newcomer with you. Though I read the poem during my talk, click on the link here to hear Carrie read it herself. Seriously, watch the video below. Hit start, close your eyes and enjoy ninety seconds of her beautiful voice, reminding you of all the simple, precious things in a life.
And after the poem, look at this.
People who wonder if the glass is half full or half empty miss the point. The glass is refillable.
Whatever you want in your glass – you’ve got it and if you want more of it, it’s on the way. If it’s Joy or Gratitude, or Resentment, or Anger, or Envy, you’ve got it. It’s your glass. Each of us get to decide what gets poured in our glass.
As the mystic, Theresa of Avila, said, “It’s heaven all the way to heaven and hell all the way to hell.” (And yes, that’s the mystic who drove me crazy just last year!)
You want more happiness, gratitude, abundance in your life? Just fill it up! It may sound stupid, but it is a proven psychological phenomenon. Gratitude is an ever-expanding emotion. If you can find just one thing to focus on and be grateful for, then you will find another and another and another. Like Carrie Newcomer’s poem, it builds from just one simple deep breath when you can say, ”I am grateful for this breath, for the fact that I am alive and in this moment, I am not suffering. There is nothing I need.” Richard Rohr defines suffering as “anytime you are not in control.” We can all think of a dozen ways we are “suffering” right now, but we can also close our eyes, take a deep breath and realize that right here, in this moment, we have an abundance of everything we need – warmth, air, food, hydration, companionship, rest. We might not be suffering at all.
David Steindl-Rast said the practice of Grateful Living can be taught, just like we were taught to cross the street when we were kids –What do you do when you get to the curb? You STOP, and then what? You LOOK both ways and then you GO.
The reason we don’t all live gratefully and therefore happily is that most of us – not necessarily most of us here, but maybe some of us here- forget to stop. Just like it said on the Time
magazine cover – we GO GO GO. All the world is go go go. And to be truly happy, which is to be grateful, we need to stop, instead of rushing through everything, trying to get to the next thing on our list, on our way to our goals. Steindl-Rast suggested we make stop signs for ourselves to remind us to take a deep breath. They can be mental ones – like prayers – when we wake, or at dinner, or bed time – when we can find, not just a general thank you, but a specific thank you. But they can be actual stop signs too. When he came back from living in Africa, he didn’t want to forget what a miracle it was to have clean, running water again, so he put a hand-written stop sign on his water faucet and on his light switch to remind him of the miracles of his life. We could put one on our mirror – dirty clothes hamper – steering wheel – computer screen at work. Once we have stopped and taken that first breath in front of the very thing that we take for granted, for which we can be grateful, even if it aggravates us, we can look around and find something else to be grateful for – the clean water, the electricity, the semi- healthy body that gets us around, even if it has wrinkles, the too many clothes we have to get dirty, and the washing machine we have to clean them, the car, the job, all of it and finally we GO; we embrace the moment and find JOY in it. When we enjoy it for that moment, it’s possible to have that gratitude inform and affect the rest of our day.
One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says it beautifully and simply:
In virtually every moment, there is something to be grateful for. That does not mean we have to be grateful for the bad things, the evil and tragic things. I don’t believe that. And if we find gratitude in the midst of bad things, it doesn’t mean we are glad they happened, or that the good outweighs the bad. It just means that even in this tragedy, in the midst of this hate, I can find some glimmer of Love, some glimpse of God. I think that’s what Jesus did on the cross when he asked God to forgive his murderers. Forgive them God. He found something to overcome the negative, even in his last breath, so that he could say in trust – Into your hands I commend my spirit.
That is how I want to go, gratefully, free of hatred and resentment, and if that is the way I want to go, then that is the way I want to live.
A line from recovery that I’ve heard is that you get to keep the gift by giving it away. And believe it or not, that is true of joy and gratitude, and love and kindness too. It’s been proven that it is almost impossible to sustain positive feelings if you keep them to yourself. You can keep your anger, your hatred, your resentment and doubts, all to yourself, all day, every day and they will grow and fester and flourish, but that’s because they are burdens. Gifts – love, joy, happiness – multiply if they are shared, given away and the more abundantly you share them, the more you have, until you finally realize there is more than enough.
So I have one final thought. and as a mother, I know it’s true: we protect what we love.
And I would just like us to think about the fact that if we aren’t consciously grateful and aware of the preciousness of the things we love, then our love can become habitual, and possibly even taken for granted, like a favorite old sweater, or stuffed animal, or favorite childhood story. You love it, but from distance, in your memory, or the image of what that thing is. And so staying actively grateful – conscious of the specific, ever-evolving nature of the people we love and the things that bring us joy, the people and things that make us feel whole, alive, excited – is so important. If we forget to love them actively, then we will forget to protect them in our hearts and minds, and even especially with our time. We want to Love well, protect well, enjoy and appreciate our lives and our relationships well, because we know what can happen if we don’t. We see it everywhere, all over – in families, neighborhoods and nations and across the world.
I want to end with this song, “Grateful,” by a man named Nimo Patel, who has devoted his life to sharing a message of Love, service and gratitude. I especially love the chorus, which goes like this: All that I am/ All that I see/ All that I’ve ever been and all I’ll ever be/ Is a blessing/ It’s so amazing/ And I’m grateful for it all.
I’m grateful for it all.
For all of you: for old friends and new, for the family we are and the family we will become, for the life I have and the life I have yet to live, I am grateful. I have failed and will fail a million more times, but “There’s a million things to be grateful for,” and I don’t want to miss a moment, caught in fear, or self-pity, or resentment. So, every day, I will try to stop and breathe, look and go, hopefully, in gratitude.
Remember that broken heart I talked about at the beginning of this blog? More than anything else at Family Camp this year, my heart was broken open by gratitude for the people I met, the Love I experienced, the stories and laughter and tears we shared. I was fully me, fully alive and aware of every gift: every baby’s smile, every toddler’s tears, every teen’s presence and every friend’s fierce hug and I thank you for it all.
If you are interested in learning more about Family Camp at La Casa de Maria, you can go to the website here.