It’s a brand new year and we’re all going to exercise more, complain less, call our grandmothers more, watch Netflix less, cook homemade meals more…hahaha! Good luck with that. See you in a few weeks.
It’s interesting to me that we lean so heavily on January 1st as a time to set goals, because really, what is January 1st? Our calendar is actually a fairly recent social construct.
Can you handle a brief history lesson the morning after New Year’s Eve celebrations? Our calendar as we know it, which is based on the Earth’s solar rotations (years, months, days) with regular adjustments made for leap years and solstices, was only implemented in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. Most countries gradually adopted the Gregorian calendar as it was easier to follow than its predecessors, the lunar and Julian calendars. All of this to say, the manner by which we measure time is fairly new.
I typically see time as one continuous, unbroken passage, but within that timeline, I also envision a loopy line that makes room for the cycles that undoubtedly exist. Seasons, the phases of the moon and even menstrual cycles are all circular loops embedded within the timeline. So, even though September is my real new year (read New Year’s Resolution) and I’m aware that January 1st may or may not be the actual top of the year, I choose to use it as a stopping point for reflection. There is something sacred found in acknowledging and heeding the rhythms of life.
An uberly contemplative person, I find great meaning in the waning of one year and the dawning of the next. Though it’s an arbitrary marker, I can almost feel the former draining away to make room for the new. And yearly, I accept the invitation to stop and ponder.
One of the yearly practices that guides my reflection involves asking and answering three questions: What was hard? What was great? What am I looking forward to?
I am an avid journaler, therefore much of my life is documented in words—none of this new-fangled, online journal stuff—it’s old school, hand-written words for me. I love my laptop, but when it comes to reflective writing, I’ll take a pretty journal and a pen or pencil over a keyboard any day! My journal is not a diary, per se, documenting daily activity, though there can be some of that. It’s a place of process and prayer. It records the sometimes extreme weather patterns of my emotions and the wise, comforting words I hear back from the God who loves me.
These physical records make it easy for me to read back through the pages, identifying highs and lows. Let me rephrase. It’s easy to identify the highs and lows, not easy to read—it often feels pathetic and painful to read (gosh, I reeeeally feel things deeply!). This practice helps me to remember what I’ve prayed and often, to uncover those answers to prayer that may have been lost or unrealized amidst the daily grind. Reading through in one sitting also helps me to identify common threads and themes in my hopes and desires and also in how God’s been leading me. Identifying and naming these reoccurring messages helps me to articulate my dreams and goals.
Even if you don’t journal on a regular basis, or at all, take time to meander back through last year. Make room for pondering.
Begin with what was hard. I literally have the title “Things That Were Hard in 2017” written and underlined at the top of a journal page. Very fancy indeed. I’m not gonna lie…this list can be tough. Many of us don’t want to talk about the difficult things. We don’t want to revisit the painful parts of the year. We don’t want to focus on the negative. But acknowledging those darker, shadow things is actually a pathway to wholeness and health. We’re not going to stay there, we’re simply going to say “yeah, that sucked” and validate the experience.
Next, make a list of what was great. “Great” for me covers a wide swath of things and there are no rules. You get to decide what was a highlight, and therefore, worth celebrating. Maybe a new baby in your family, a marriage, a new job. Perhaps you took a family vacation or received an award. Maybe your kid made the team or finally met some wonderful new friends. Maybe you saw U2 in concert. Maybe you renovated a bathroom. Maybe Jen Hatmaker followed you on Twitter (oh wait, that was a disappointing hoax. Scratch that). Maybe you learned to knit or ski or you got a tattoo. There are no qualifiers. If it was great for you, it goes on the list.
And finally, what are you looking forward to? For me, this typically combines resolution-esque ideas, practical and spiritual goals as well as events I’m looking forward to during the upcoming year. Like everybody else, I’ll probably plan to do more than look in the direction of my yoga mat. I’ll likely do Whole30 again. I’d also like my clothes to continue fitting, but for someone who esteems good food and wine, this goal is lofty. Maybe I’ll include “begin writing a book” or “have friends for dinner once a month.” If we have a family vacation or event on the radar, I might note that as well.
I’m going to be brutally honest. Conjuring a list of things I’m looking forward to has been the hardest part of my practice this year. The year of our Lord 2017 essentially took my hope into a back alley and kicked the crap out of it. So, naming hopes and dreams feels a little bit risky for me at the moment.
That being said, there were many amazing things in this last year and so much to be thankful for. One of the most monumental for me was that I finally summoned the courage to come out of the closet with my writing. I posted twenty-six essays this year and wrote many more than that! My children are healthy, we have food on our table and God has continued to be so close and so faithful. So, yes, there was a lot of good, but it was also really hard.
This is a text interchange between my sister Katie and I (who, for the record, is not only my sister, but one of my most precious and trusted friends):I’ll take another swing at the third question later on today when I can find a quiet moment to pray and reflect. Maybe I’ll add a bunch of hopes and dreams, or not. This one thing I know. No matter what else ends up on my list, there is one goal, above all other goals, that I’ll continue to pursue. Every single day. No matter what. Other than friendship with Jesus, it’s the one resolution, the one goal, the one plan that makes the biggest difference. More than size 8 pants, more than writing a book, more than cutting out sugar, more than traveling to Costa Rica…
The one goal that will actually change your life is practicing gratitude.
If you want to change your life, look for what is good. Because if you’re looking for the hard stuff you’ll find it. But if you’re looking for the good stuff, you’ll find it. When you change how you see, you change everything. Focusing on what is good doesn’t make you an ostrich with your head in the sand. It doesn’t make you delusional and out of touch with reality. It doesn’t mean you deny or pretend that the hard stuff doesn’t exist. It simply means that you decide what’s in focus.
I do something called “The Finger Thing” with my students. It’s a simple action that serves as a visual cue to better understand how to shift our focus:
Hold your index finger up in front of your nose, out far enough that you can see it without going cross-eyed. It should look like you’re pointing to the sky or saying “we’re #1!” Your finger in front of your face is the “hard thing.” First, focus on the finger. You can still see everything else in the background, but it’s blurred and out of focus. Now, keeping your finger in front of your face, shift your focus to the background and look around. As everything in the background becomes crisp and clear, the finger will be out of focus. The hard thing doesn’t magically disappear (you can still see that it’s there), but you’re no longer giving it your sole attention.
What we hold in focus can easily determine our mood and energy. We can train ourselves to look beyond the hard thing and see all that is good. Be intentional. Write down why you are thankful every day. There are no rules; you are allowed to be thankful for whatever you want. My gratitude list is interspersed throughout my journal, but maybe you’ll decide to use a designated list or book. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you do.
In seasons of fulfillment, of plenty, and of answered prayer, stopping to say thank you is a celebration of joy. Gratitude flows easily. But in darker times, when you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and you need Coke-bottle glasses to see the good—when your ‘offering’ is literally a sacrifice of praise—gratitude will save your life.
The November 24th devotional reading in “Jesus Calling” says it this way (read it like Jesus is talking to you):
Thankfulness takes the sting out of adversity. That is why I have instructed you to give thanks for everything. There is an element of mystery in this transaction: you give me thanks (regardless of your feelings), and I give you joy (regardless of your circumstances). This is a spiritual act of obedience—at times, blind obedience. To people who don’t know me intimately, it can seem irrational and even impossible to thank me for heartrending hardships. Nonetheless, those who obey me in this way are invariably blessed, even though difficulties may remain.”
Whatever hard thing is in your face right now, vying for (and even screaming for) your attention—financial difficulty, illness, rejection, job-loss, addiction, disappointment, loneliness, strained relationships, fear—I hope you’ll pursue this one goal that will make the biggest difference. Live with gratitude.
Happy New Year, my friends.
Wonderful writing. I swear it feels like your writing is reading my mind and the very sentences that are going through my head. It makes me smile every time because it reminds me that God is speaking to all of us all the time and has beautiful threads that He weaves together – and that also weave each of us together and remind us that we are connected.
I could so relate to the ups and the downs. I’ve been through my share of crappy years and amazing years. Being thankful for both the big and the small things does make a difference. And this past year has been a profound shift in what I choose to focus on. So neat to see that there are fellow travelers on that road.
Thanks for sharing the journey.
Ellen Pusch says
I love that we share such a similar path…far apart and yet constantly intersecting. Happy New Year, my far away, kindred spirit!
Nancie Stevenson says
I could so relate to this essay. Thank you Ellen. You just inspire me so much. Tim asked me the other day if I have forgiven people whom I should but can’t. I feel gratitude every day lately but just cannot find it in my heart to forgive. The best I can do is put them in a little drawer in my mind and close it. I may never be able to forgive them and I cannot help that. I have tried but can’t. So now I try not to deal with it and get on with life. I wish I could be more like you. Love N
Ellen Pusch says
Thank you so much for your kind words, Nancie! I’m going to send you something privately. xo
I’ve known for awhile that practicing gratitude – as opposed to leading with complaints – is a thing I need and want to do more.
Not too long ago, I heard an interview that made me think about it a little differently. Christopher Van Buren said, “Recognizing beauty is the same energy as being grateful.” Recognizing beauty is simply noticing. Observing the beauty and the blessing requires attention. We have to stop and look. Focus, as you say.
No wonder being grateful is hard when we are hurried.
Ellen Pusch says
Beautifully said. I like it. Engaging our senses and simply noticing.