Is it necessary to master gratitude in order to remain clean and sober in the long run?
My belief is that, while we may never truly master gratitude completely, all of us in recovery have to be striving for it on a daily basis.
Failure to do so brings a certain amount of risk into our lives in terms of relapse.
You may be wondering why this is the case. What should it matter if we are constantly trying to find the good in things, if we are always trying to look on the bright side of things, and so on? Why should that affect our ability to avoid alcohol and other drugs?
The truth is that gratitude is an important practice that has to become one of the pillars of our spiritual journey if we are to succeed.
First, and perhaps most importantly, is the concept that gratitude promotes learning in a way that is conducive to sobriety. Now what do we mean by that?
If something “bad” happens in our world, and we label it as being “bad luck” or that the universe is simply picking on us, then we essentially walk away from that experience with nothing. We gain nothing but misery and being upset by the event.
However, if we force ourselves to look for the gratitude in every situation, including the “bad” ones, then we will be looking to see what might be good about it. And when we are looking for the “good” in a seemingly “bad” situation we are often going to be finding life lessons, or things that we can learn from it.
For example, let’s say that you get let go from your job one day, and you feel like this is completely bad on a whole number of levels, and you are nearly at a point of panic because you need income to pay your bills, and so on.
Your initial reaction is “this is bad, and there is nothing good about it.”
But then you realize that there are actually some good things that came out of it. One, you realize that you can learn something from getting let go, because you figured out a character defect that was holding you back from being a better employee. And it might even feel as if fate were involved because then you discovered an even better opportunity for more meaningful work that had a lot of advantages over your old position–work that you never would have discovered if you were still employed there.
So at first you think of an event as “bad,” but then later you can see how it turned out to be positive.
This phenomenon happens over and over again on a truly massive scale if you talk to the people at an AA or NA meeting, especially in terms of their addiction itself. You could ask the question of people: “Do you think of your addiction as a curse?” And they will talk about it and most of them will eventually arrive at the place in which they realize that their addiction was, in fact, a blessing–because it led them to recovery where they were able to learn some spiritual principles. In other words, they can look back at their entire life and realize that they are better off now, and they are happier now that they have gone through their addiction and arrived at a place of spiritual growth. So instead of their addiction feeling like a curse they can appreciate that it brought them to where they are at today.
The programs of recovery speak to this idea, saying that one day, if you stick with a recovery program, you will look back and be truly grateful for all of it, both the good and the bad that you experienced. Because it all got you to here, where you are on a path of personal growth and you are happy in sobriety.
Of course gratitude is not something that you master, it is something that we instead get to practice. This is because there are going to be times in your life when it is very difficult to feel grateful. And perhaps these are the times when it is most important for us to be practicing gratitude and remembering spiritual principles.
It is easy to be grateful when everything is going our way, right? That is not the challenge. The hard part is to remember to practice gratitude when we are feeling dumped on by life, when we are feeling selfish, when we want to feel negative. When we are dealing with guilt or shame or fear or resentment, that is when we most need to practice gratitude. And in order to do that we have to have a way to remind ourselves to do so.
It is fairly difficult for us to be so incredibly self aware that we notice the second that we are becoming resentful, or angry, or afraid, or ashamed, and then immediately flip a switch in our brain and force ourselves to practice gratitude. That is almost impossible for us to do on a consistent basis.
So what is the solution? How do we practice gratitude in the face of adversity if it is nearly impossible to do so consistently?
The secret is this: We make a habit of practicing gratitude every single day, no matter what.
If you have a good day, it doesn’t matter, you practice gratitude.
If you have a “bad” day, it doesn’t matter, you practice gratitude.
And so what we really need to do is to develop our practice. How can we do that though?
One way to do so is to start framing your prayers in terms of gratitude. If you are praying for strength and wisdom, then say “thank you for the strength you have given me.” Turn everything into a statement of thankfulness. Be grateful for the things that you may not feel like you already have, but that you know will be bestowed upon you if you seek it.
Another way to practice gratitude every day is to write out lists. Write down 10 things that you are grateful for every day, and pin it up on your desk. At the end of the day, tear it up and throw it away. Then tomorrow wake up and write out a new list–it only takes a moment or two. And if you struggle to write out a list, then this only means that you definitely need to be doing it!
As you practice writing out gratitude lists, you will get faster at it. And the speed is important, in my experience, because if you sit there and struggle to come up with a reason to be grateful then it means that when you are facing a possible relapse you are also going to struggle.
Remember that “gratitude never relapses.” If you are truly grateful in the moment then it is impossible to justify a drink or a drug. If you are grateful you are fully protected from relapse.
On the other hand, think about when an alcoholic or an addict is picking up that drink and saying “forget it, I just want to be drunk.” Think about their state of mind. They have given up on all of it, they have given up on trying to be grateful, and they are making the selfish decision to self medicate in spite of the consequences.
Selfishness is a lack of gratitude, and it leads to relapse. But gratitude never relapses. So practice it!