The process of gratitude reminds me of a creative exercise one of my writing retreat friends tried. Our group annually retreats to a large home that provides a spacious, private room for each of us. We bring a variety of projects and goals, share them at the beginning of the week, then come together each evening for dinner and sharing. Several years ago, one friend, who had a goal of trying a creative art project each day, shared her experience of that morning. She was to paint a piece of paper with a variety of colors—no content or specific pattern or structure, but random paint strokes.
Once the full paper is covered, it’s allowed to dry. The artist (or non-artist as would be the case with me) takes her focus off it for a while. When she returns, she looks at it with a fresh perspective and imagines what she sees within the design that was not intentionally created. She takes a full 3-5 minute of focus and imagination, then turns the paper 45 degrees to repeat the focus and imagination with another perspective. Continued turns change the perspective until the person returns to the original orientation.
Although no specific form and design was intended with the random strokes of color, with a changing perspective and focus, some things come into focus. It’s a bit like looking at clouds as they shift across the sky. We imagine different shapes and stories.
And how is the creative painting exercise or cloud watching like gratitude? I’m not saying we should let our imaginations run amuck and dream up things in our lives that don’t exist just to find gratitude. However, looking at our circumstances in a broader or shifted context can open our eyes to glimpses of beauty that we might not otherwise notice.
I think the world has taught us gratitude is something different. It’s what we put on top of our circumstances. We see a messy painting, and we draw a big smiley face on it and call it all good. Or we see a blob that looks something like a sun within the design so we keep the paper turned in that direction, build a small frame around it, and post it as our gratitude moment captured for the day. If only gratitude was as simple as making a list of highlights of each day.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Keeping a gratitude journal can make a monumental difference in your attitude about daily life. But it can also mislead you and prompt you to gloss over some things that need to be tended to instead of masked with a smiley sticker. Maybe jotting one thing at the end (or beginning) of the day is all you can muster right now. That’s a good place to start, and you might be in that head space for a while. Keep at it. And, at some point, challenge yourself to grow by turning the page 90 degrees and looking at gratitude (and your life) with a slightly different perspective.
A gratitude journal can help us identify gratitude. Like so many disciplines, it also has the capability of becoming a rote exercise that does little to challenge our perspective or prompt us to grow. But if we seek gratitude with authenticity, the journey will challenge us to look beyond what is obvious.