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Follow the sunbeam back up to the sun

Anyone who’s spent more than a few hours with me has probably heard me quote or reference C.S. Lewis. He has long been my favorite author (though ironically not the author of my favorite book), and portions from his writings have informed my perspectives on the world, life, and myself.

The little lesson I’ve been contemplating on recently is the idea of gratitude. Life has been full of a lot of ups and downs lately, and even the good things can sometimes feel overwhelming. A friend mentioned that one of her favorite ways to stay centered is gratitude, specifically listing things she’s thankful for. I realized that I’ve been doing a poor job of that, and have been working to change it.

Gratitude, at its most basic level, is acknowledging good things that affect you, and crediting the source of the good thing. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis in Letters to Malcolm, to be grateful is to follow the sunbeam back up to the sun. Seeing a sunbeam in a forest or feeling its warmth is the good thing, and tracing it back up to the sun is the act of gratitude.

The most interesting thing about gratitude is that, if you let it, it’s a chain reaction. If I feel the sunbeam and am grateful for it, I can extrapolate that to being grateful for the sun and the earth (and the atmosphere that makes the proximity hospitable), and the sheer improbability of it all existing in just this way, which for me is then a segue to faith. If I keep following the rabbit trail, I would never stop listing all the things I’m thankful for.

Externally it can be the same thing. An attitude of thankfulness and appreciation spreads among people so, so quickly. Part of that is thanks to our ingrained reciprocal, social nature as humans, but we all know that it also just feels good.

Growing up we were all taught to say thank you at the necessary times, but it’s surprising how much extra meaningful it can feel when unprompted. Maybe that means an extra thank you to your server at a restaurant, maybe it means writing a coworker a note to tell them how much you appreciate them. Maybe it means randomly sending a family member or close friend a text about why you’re grateful for them.

It can also be through gestures, not just words. Buying someone a cup of coffee or completing a task that makes things easier on them is an easy way to share your gratitude. I really like to bake, so now and then I bake treats for my office to boost morale after we’ve done a good job on a project.

And sometimes it’s just for you. Being an emerging adult is hard (no matter what anyone tells you), and being grateful is often the best way to shift your perspective if you’re feeling overwhelmed or negative. So here’s a quick list of some tips for practicing gratitude:

  • Write a list of things you’re thankful for — you can also keep a journal for this if you want something you can look back on
  • Tell or show someone why you’re grateful for them
  • Go for a walk or spend time outside with no agenda except to experience some part of nature that you enjoy
  • Look through some pictures or memorabilia that represent good memories
  • Think about things you’re looking forward to
  • Name some things you’re proud of about yourself, and then consider what/who helped you achieve those things

I also want to note that in no way is this intended to be flippant. While I do believe there are always things to be grateful for, it’s important to allow space for other emotions as well, especially in times of pain or crisis. It’s okay to be sad or angry or exhausted. Healthy gratitude will never replace those things, but it can come alongside them and hold you up when the rest of life feels heavy.

At the end of the day, you made it this far, you’ve got people who care about you, and you’ve got it in you to keep going. Sounds like some good things to be grateful for.

What are your favorite ways to practice gratitude? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!

(Photo is a free stock photo because somehow I don’t have any of these?)

Yours for the reading

Anyone who knows me knows that I am, as my dad once put it, a voracious reader. After the initial kindergarten outrage that the words didn’t follow the rules, they started to come together into stories and facts and tapestries that have captivated me ever since. I mostly have my parents to thank for the fact that I grew up loving books so much, and for making sure I never, ever ran out of things to read.

A book I recently finished was looking at some of the differences between kids who grow up to be successful adults*. One of the most significant factors? Books. Not everybody loves reading, and I get that. But reading — well, frequently, and on a variety of topics — is genuinely one of the most indispensable methods of learning and preparing for success. Reading expands your vocabulary, sharpens your cognitive processing, and fosters empathy; which is something the world sorely needs more of.

When I was a kid, I was remiss to go anywhere without a book. I would pack a quarter of my suitcase full of them on vacations, and used to follow behind my mom in the grocery store, just using my peripherals to navigate so I didn’t have to put the story down. College made reading what I wanted more difficult because I was busy, exhausted, and all my homework was reading, but I’m slowly picking up books more frequently.

Of course, some books are just for fun. But some made a huge difference in how I saw the world, and how I wanted to live in it. So just for fun, below is a list of some of the books that have influenced me most. (Disclaimers that I get no compensation for any recommendations I put up on this blog, and though I’ve included links to them on Amazon because it’s convenient, please consider supporting local and independent bookstores!)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Don’t knock it — this was absolutely my favorite book as a kid, and the one I always wanted to read after a rough day. Fun fact: I can still recite the whole book from memory (though I sometimes muddle up Saturday).

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

When I was in 4th grade, my mom recommended I read this for a book report, and frankly I didn’t want to. I reluctantly started it, and didn’t put it down for the next four days. This book is one of the first that made me not just fall in love with stories, but with words, in addition to igniting my love of all things C. S. Lewis.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

To be honest, this book isn’t particularly high on my list of favorites. But it had a lasting impact on me, and one that I only realized the extent of later. Stargirl is flawed and thoughtful and leaves an impression, and showed me all the potential of quiet, everyday magic.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

History has rarely afforded us the preservation of firsthand accounts from any besides the most powerful, and this slim autobiography is honest, harsh, and hopeful — it implores the reader to open their eyes, and deepened my dedication to looking for stories and perspectives beyond my own. (Also y’all, this one is $1.62 on Amazon right now — pick it up if you haven’t read it.)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This remains my favorite book in the world, and no other book has caught me the same way. The narration is striking, the story is poignant, and it talks about things we can’t imagine in a way that is surprisingly, hauntingly familiar.

Letters to Malcolm by C.S. Lewis

This books dances on the line between essays and fiction, but it helped teach me how to view life— in all its pain and pulchritude — as even more wondrous. The book talks about prayer while not shying away from any questions or challenges that might arise.

It’s also worth noting that books are by no means the only thing worth reading. Newspapers have taught me more than I could possibly put into words, magazines have been a consistent source of ideas and inspiration, and comic books tell far more true and relevant stories than we often give them credit for. There’s something to learn everywhere you can find words to read. What stories have impacted you most? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!

*The book is Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell if you’re interested — he’s one of my favorite nonfiction authors.