Aesop said, “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.” The past two weeks have been painful in ways I won’t divulge. But what matters is navigating through the pain and emerging unscathed–perhaps even stronger–on the other side. One useful habit I’ve developed over the past year has been to express and keep track of gratitude. Doing so helps me minimize the suck while remembering and appreciating the good. It’s there if we only look for it. As we approach Thanksgiving, perhaps practicing gratitude can help you get unstuck, too.

Grateful for: Little Free Libraries within walking distance of home. Splashes of color (pumpkins) and whimsy (pelican carving). Blue sky during a period of time when all we have are rain clouds.
Grateful for: Little Free Libraries within walking distance of home. Splashes of color (pumpkins) and whimsy (pelican carving). Blue sky during a period of time when all we have are rain clouds.

What Started as a Weekly Exchange…

Doris Day said, “Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty.” Two years ago today, my mother and I decided to embark on a weekly e-mail exchange. We would share one positive thing that we’re grateful for from that week. It could be small, such as having a conversation with a stranger at the coffee shop. Or huge, such as having a loved one finally coming home to recover after major surgery.

Not only did it keep us in touch with each other week after week, but it also gave us valuable insights into what we each notice and hold dear. Hearing about her struggles and successes from thousands of miles away helped me relate to her more even though we haven’t been able to see each other for a long time.

Practicing Gratitude: Connections with family. Author with her daughter and parents in Asheville, NC April 2019.
Visiting my parents in Asheville, NC April 2019. (Yes, my daughter, left, is over six feet tall)

You can do the same with a friend, loved one, writing partner, or training partner, sort of like the accountability partner I introduced earlier. You can also keep it private, in a gratitude notebook. See what you come up with. Having now kept a record for two years, I can look back at our earlier exchanges. I remember exactly what was going on that prompted each gratitude, a “week-at-a-glance” journal.

…Provides Examples Spanning Two Years

Rather than complaining about the past two weeks (poverty! no!), I thought I’d review just a few from the past two years (riches, indeed!) Your gratitude list will obviously differ from mine, but this gives you an idea of how diverse, healing, and nurturing such a list can be.

Grateful for beauty everywhere, if we only pay attention to and look for it.
Grateful for beauty everywhere, if we only pay attention to and look for it.

Practicing Gratitude for Family Experiences

  • A wonderful vacation to the South and Stewart Islands of New Zealand, merely months before COVID hit
  • Help from my husband and daughter in treating a hard-to-reach lesion on my back (no surgery, thankfully!)
  • A trip to Yellowstone National Park that resulted in great nature experiences
The author and her husband in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by B. Schurman.
The author and her husband in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by B. Schurman.
  • A visit to the Coast to camp, birdwatch, and escape a heatwave in Seattle
  • My daughter soaring through her online AP exams with college credit for all of them
  • Touring UW campus and helping my daughter submit a college application and FAFSA form
How To Practice Gratitude To Get Unstuck
The author’s lovely daughter taking a walking tour of U. WA campus, Veteran’s Day 2021.

Practicing Gratitude for People

  • Hearty laughs and connections in unexpected places that remind me of the humor instilled in me by my birth family
  • Writing partners in the Seattle community who offer overall encouragement and support and remind me that I’m not alone, even if meetings have to be via Zoom
  • Body Results clients who keep returning for guidance, wisdom and inspiration
  • A deepening friendship with my accountability partner and Developmental Editor at Allegory Editing

Practicing Gratitude for Ongoing Occurrences

  • Recurring Zoo shifts that deepen my respect and appreciation for the animal kingdom
  • 62 mostly-solo injury-free hikes to a wide variety of destinations in the state of Washington
  • Seeing my daughter perform in uniform on the football field (flute in marching band) her senior year
The author's daughter (center, on flute) performing with the marching band during half time.
The author’s daughter (center, on flute) performing with the marching band during half time.
  • Fixing our pond so the water flows clean and clear
  • Keeping a blog since July to capture the wonderful moments and share with readers
  • Identifying what is beautiful, to me, in nature and shooting it with my camera
How To Practice Gratitude To Get Unstuck
Nature’s beautiful resilience gives me hope.

Cultivate An Attitude of Gratitude

Robert Brault said, “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” We take for granted much of what we have until we no longer have it. Our freedom to congregate. Freedom to hike. To go to restaurants, stores, plays, movies. While some (well, okay, many) of our freedoms feel compromised over the past two years, we still have so much to appreciate.

Just this week, Victoria Peters, one of my Monday morning critique partners, reminded me how important it is for us to “Be here, right now, at this moment.” Anna Colpitts pointed out how much she enjoyed my behind-the-scenes tour of Woodland Park Zoo and blog posts about hikes she’ll never do (but appreciates.) Roma Anjoy reminded us that we each have the right to choose — which extends to our attitude as well. Absent this week but always present in spirit, Susan Ferguson has been a role model, inviting me to join the EPIC board (three years) and participate on the WOTS Steering Committee (three years).

How To Practice Gratitude To Get Unstuck
Three of my eight critique partners (from two separate groups). This was taken in January of 2017 at the Edmonds Public Library where we used to meet. For 19 months we’ve been meeting on Zoom.

And that idea about trading gratitudes with my mom? I borrowed that from Jeanne Gerhard, a friend I met at Write on the Sound nine years ago when we were both looking for connections and information about writing. I am forever grateful for each of my Monday Morning critique partners who have stood beside me for eight years and who help me get unstuck time and again.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

4 replies on “How To Practice Gratitude To Get Unstuck”

  1. I feel that « life skills » are not talked about enough… and, by and large, not taught in any systematic and organized fashion. Yet I believe that, much more than financial wealth, fame, academic achievements, etc. they determine if we’ll live a “good life” or… a different one.

    THANK YOU for this post – and invitation to reflect — about one of these skills: gratitude. I totally second all the (well written) points you make about its power and usefulness… and really enjoyed the quotes you included. Oh… those pics as well!! You are right too: several of these concepts, like gratefulness and mindfulness, are at times “Hallmark-ized” in a way that can make them seem Pollyannish, just a trend… when, in reality, they require a whole lot of mental strength, resilience, emotional intelligence, and dedication… and yield incredible results.

    Very presumptuously, I may alter Aesop’s quote slightly 😊 : ”Gratitude turns what we have into”… PLENTY. What I mean is that, while we are bombarded with messages about what SUCCESS looks like (TV/Movies, Advertisement, Social media, peer pressure, etc.), there is no “proof” that any EXTERNAL criteria thrown at us will really FEEL like success once we get there. I subscribe to the belief that only WE can know what will make us truly feel successful/fulfilled (maybe the elusive “happy” is another name for it…). What HAS been established scientifically and empirically is that dwelling on “failures” and “unfairness” and “hurt” almost always stifles our ability to get out of / get past the negative experiences in our lives… while gratitude (choosing to focus on our “luck”, our “accomplishments”, our brushes with beauty and kindness) almost always ensures we find the most direct path to better living. I think that if we live in the United States (or any other first-world country), if we are a bit over the poverty line, if we have a roof over our head, if we are lucky enough to be able to have HOBBIES, etc. … we already have plenty.

    Our mind may interrupt … “objection your honor!… I don’t have this or that!!!”; MY mind certainly does because I see, read or hear about “fabulously wealthy and successful” folks out there. MY mind also tells me about all these dreams I had that will not come true (note: aging does not help here). MY mind points at what did not work… and I practically never get anything useful out of that focus on the negative. I only “made progress” the day I finally realized that, IF I want to be “true to myself” and what matter to me (shamelessly borrowing one of your previous quotes Court), IF I really want to DO the best I can to reach my most important goals, THEN the best way by far seems to be (1) keeping these priorities clear and properly ranked, (2) deliberately focusing on my lucky-breaks and my successes on the way there, while (3) be very kind and supportive of myself when I (unavoidably) encounter setbacks (addendum: “it’s so unfair!” is not part of the approved vocabulary). I feel that the serenity, courage, wisdom “mantra” essentially speaks of the same.

    I am male, white, living in Oregon, financially OK, with a wonderful wife I don’t deserve, and able to indulge in my hiking pastime (and a few others). I did have my share of hardships, including going in and out of hospitals for months at a time between the age of 4 and 8… But, BY ALL REASONABLE ACCOUNTS, I am extremely privileged and lucky; I have PLENTY. Do I aspire to more? Yes, it means I am still alive. Once I recognize how blessed I am for all this good luck, t’s OK to seek more beauty, positive experiences, new ways to enjoy life.

    Two small anecdotes to close my (way too long) comment. In 1998 I moved from Ohio to San Francisco and decided to make it a solo “cross-country road-trip adventure”. On the last day, I drove much longer than I should have and found myself late at night on I80 through the endless northern Nevada desert west of Salt Lake City. Staying awake on intravenous caffeine, open windows, and loud music, I flew through the night, probably doing around 80 MPH. At one point, I leaned over and reached far on the passenger seat to fetch the next K7 to play (yes, these were still around…). When I finally straightened up in my seat a handful of seconds later, I was driving entirely on the shoulder of the interstate (no rumble strips) at top speed; I quickly corrected my trajectory while feeling that adrenaline rush following a “close escape”… Less than 10 miles further, firmly driving in the perfect center or the rightmost lane, I saw an old pickup truck parked/abandoned on the shoulder without any lights/flares warning oncoming traffic about its presence. At that moment, I felt so incredibly lucky, so grateful for whatever allowed me to avoid the worst. Since that day, and every time something “bad” happens to me and I am tempted to say “why did I not leave the house 10 minutes earlier or later? Why did I not follow that route instead of this one”, I remember the night when I clearly would have died if I had tried to get the K7 just 5 minutes later. It reminds me that I am too often tempted to notice/focus on the times “it did not work”, while way too easily brushing aside the times it did. THIS YEAR, I abandoned a long hike attempt due to sickness and weakness; I then went for plan B, doing day-hikes in the areas I had planned to hike through. It is on one of these hikes that I met you Court, and discovered you had the perfect skills to help me prepare better for another attempt in 2022. How lucky was that! I could have arrived at the trailhead 10 minutes later and never taken the steps to work with a personal trainer, getting stuck in the “How/where do I start? How can I know this trainer will work for me?”; that tiny nudge from the universe is something to be really grateful about!

    1. Where to begin? I might create a place where commenters can put their OWN blog posts! 🙂 Seriously, there’s so much to unpack here.

      First, your phrase, “belief that only WE can know what will make us truly feel successful/fulfilled (maybe the elusive “happy” is another name for it…)” is spot on. Chasing the elusive “happiness” has been an unconscious goal of mine for the better part of my adult life — doesn’t everyone in America strive for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” after all? Yet when I’m asked “What makes you happy?” I can point to tiny moments — walking barefoot in the grass, sunsets, reaching the end of a trail to find a spectacular waterfall, my daughter’s hug, doggy kisses. IS that “enough?” Shouldn’t we aspire to more? And who makes those “shoulds” after all? Society points to more (wealth! Fame! Fortune!) Then what’s “wrong” with us if that’s not what we want? Can gratitude be enough? So many meta-questions to explore. Answers we can only find within ourselves.

      Second, I’m no philosopher but I find these questions back from readers so tantalizing and curious. One of the side benefits of posting a blog, truly — is getting to see reactions and learn from them as much as I’m putting out there. So thank you for that. And yes, if we have free time (to blog! to hike! to volunteer!) we really have no reason to complain. I “should” be grateful for everything I already have. And I am. Yet I always want and strive for more. As my energy practitioner pointed out in a session today, we often use “grateful” in the phrase “grateful for X” or “grateful to Y for this reason” when gratitude could really be seen as a mindset, “I am grateful. Period.” And today, that’s where I am. Even in the dark wet rain, I am grateful simply for being. So powerful.

      Third, I smile a teeny bit when I read your line about “fabulously wealthy and successful” and “not being there yet.” I think of those survivors of Dachau or Auschwitz who were stripped of everything, including their very humanity, and yet continued to find a reason to live. I think of those living today who have made it out of dirt-poor poverty and horrible situations like natural disasters, and yet are full of smiles and gratitude simply for being alive. What gives individuals resilience? Compared to what others have had to struggle against, I have absolutely no reason to complain, and yet…we still do. I aspire to remember that things can ALWAYS be worse – I can be sick, I can be poor, I can be destitute — I have it SO INCREDIBLY WELL, right now. And yet, and yet… within us we can always strive to improve. This week I adopted a street in Seattle’s Adopt-a-Street program, a direct outcome of my exploration into OcTraPiMo — now I will continue to give back and clean up and have the support of the city behind me. That makes me so very happy, just to give back in a sustaining way. If we can give of ourselves, we can get beyond ourselves, and find a reason to keep going in ways that enrich others.

      Finally, you write, “Do I aspire to more? Yes, it means I am still alive.” I might add, it’s OKAY to want more (that’s the American dream, yes?) Can we know when we have “enough”? Will we ever have “enough?” I don’t know the answer, but I know that I continue to blog to learn, grow, discover, and, with the help of provocative reader comments such as yours, seek beyond myself. As ever, thanks for the thoughts.

  2. Love this article. Great idea about sharing gratitude with your mom. I wonder if I could do this with my hubby!🙄 I need to explore this further. Many thanks for this idea.

    1. You’re most welcome. I know “gratitude” is about as popular/trendy right now as “mindfulness” but until you try it you don’t realize just how powerful it is. When I first looked at the date of our first exchange, I thought it was only a year — but we’ve been going for two! And each night at dinner we say one or two things we’re each grateful for. Even my teenager! A nice way to reflect on the GOOD instead of always being bombarded by media’s BAD.

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