Just like that—the world changes. At breakneck speed, life has changed in unprecedented and unforeseen ways. Sickness, disappointment, uncertainty, and unknown fear are daily experiences. So much is changing so fast! I cannot catch my breath before the next cancellation, closure, or change.

The world is on fire and anxiety is humanity’s primary posture. There is no shortage of opportunities to be anxious: overwhelmed health care providers and hospitals, homeschooling children and overwhelmed parents, lost jobs and income, sickness and death, and the ubiquitous anxiety of avoiding contact with people. As social beings, staying away from others is unnatural, even for self-proclaimed introverts. The world has changed and there is no certainty or clarity as to what it will look like on the other side of the pandemic.

I’d like to propose an antidote for dealing with both our individual and collective anxiety during the pandemic crisis: gratitude.

Gratitude is not a privatized practice meant for individuals; it is for the entire community of the people God. Gratitude is not economic, working like the market, utilizing debit transactions. Instead, gratitude is inherently social, always connecting one to another. It is the fundamental human and Christian stance, poised between God and creation, God and the world. For the Christian, faith, and gratitude travel together.

Gratitude is not about dismissing or denying fear, sadness, confusion, or anger. Nor is it, positive thinking. Rather, it offers an opportunity to see and experience multiple feelings at once; to welcome joy into the same places where grief is held; to turn to what quietly grows and breaths, includes ourselves. In practice, gratitude becomes an antidote to the anxiety that defines the ethos of the times. Gratitude can calm anxiety, opening a portal into the imagination. It can plant us in the present moment, deepening the capacity to firmly hold together the suffering and the hope we have.

A need to construct a happy, victorious face leads to our collective anxiety. Anxiety is an ancient fear, perhaps the root of all paralyzing emotions, and certainly one of the most contagious—that’s why it always takes down groups of people, not just individuals.[1] Gratitude works the same way: it is also contagious. As a daily practice, gratitude spreads from person to person, disrupts the responses to anxiety, and leads to freedom. Gratitude is an antidote to our collective anxiety, opening the imagination to see with fresh eyes the beauty all around. The toxic layers of anxiety slowly peel away, inviting us to be present in the midst of the alien circumstances and sense of disconnection.

In closing, I share three embodied Spiritual Practices of Gratitude that are opening my imagination during the pandemic:

  1. Pause and savor the experience. Sources of gratitude often slip away from our attention, especially when we are under stress. To counterbalance our brain’s tendency to be like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positives ones, practice noticing and choosing what is life-affirming over what is life-negating.[2] Make the experience last by staying with it for 5, 10, even 20 seconds. The longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire and thus wire together, causing a stronger trace in one’s memory.
  2. Keep a Gratitude Journal. Suggestions for Journal Prompts:
  3. How do you experience gratitude?
  4. Where and how can we practice gratitude during social distancing?
  5. What are the gifts, graces, and joy in your life?
  6. What gives you hope these days?
  7. What has been given to you during this time?
  8. How are you experiencing God during the pandemic?
  9. Take a gratitude walk. Move your body. Feel the rhythm of your body and breath. Breathe, pause, and be grateful for the air that is filling your lungs and making your life possible. Pay attention to your senses—everything you see, hear, feel, smell, and maybe even taste—and see how many things you can find to be grateful for.

[1] Brene Brown, Facebook and Instagram post, April 3, 2020.

[2] John Tierney, The New York Times, “A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day” (November 21, 2011), available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html?_r=0.