The Journal

On Gratitude… Through the Lens of 2020

This journal article was bravely shared by Mary-Elizabeth Meagher.

The year was 2011. I had just embarked on my first semester of college. For the second time. Hold on, that sounds confusing—let me explain.

About nine months prior to this, I was filling out intake forms at a psychiatric treatment center. So the opposite of rolling out of bed 15 minutes before my American Government class. After three weeks of freshman dorms, lecture halls, an 18-credit hour schedule, and more Starbucks coffee than one person should ever ingest, I collapsed. Quite literally. The EMTs were dispatched, I took a medical leave from campus, then found myself hospitalized for an eating disorder that had spun my life out of control.    

Now fast-forward back to 2011. Those difficulties were behind me, and I was grateful for another chance. I transferred to a new university, became friends with my two roommates, chose a major that fueled my creative passions, and joined a few student organizations outside my own comfort zone. 

After close to a year spent healing from a severe mental illness, then coming out fiercer and more resilient on the other side, I was ready for an authentic college experience. I seized both the challenges and the opportunities. I rolled the dice on myself and submitted applications for a number of internships I thought would not even consider me. I knew just how fortunate I was to be alive, and I refused to waste the privilege. 

A couple months into this semester, my mother came to visit me for the afternoon, and over tikka masala at an Indian fusion restaurant near campus, she made an observation that still remains with me years later. “You have more gratitude on your face and in your heart than most people I know. You have seen rock bottom, and you no longer take this life for granted now that you reclaimed it.” 

She believed this for me, and I wanted it to be true. So I chose to lead with gratitude. That is, until the resolve wore off. Until the next eruption of chaos struck, as was bound to occur. Until it became easier to complain than to give thanks. But why am I sharing a window into that younger version of me? It has been almost a decade—how is this story relevant? What does it matter within the context of 2020? 

Well…because humans are notorious for this pattern, right? We suffer, but we also endure, then we count ourselves grateful once those storm clouds pass. We embrace the possibility of a new sunrise each morning, and we exhale in appreciation as the moon returns each night. We breathe deeper, love harder, laugh freer, dream bolder and feel lighter. Sure, we faced sorrow, but now we bask in triumph. Life is a gift, we declare. And we stand firm in this conviction, just as long as the circumstances work in our favor.     

This encapsulates my whole erratic journey through the wilds of 2020. Nor do I think for a moment I am alone in that reaction. Case in point: click on any news update or log into social media. The landscape is bleak. Another surge of COVID-19. Entrenched systems of racial injustice. A turbulent campaign for the White House. An economy on the decline. Families torn apart at the Mexican border. 

“Insert zero gratitude here” has been my outlook most of this year, and for a while, I convinced myself it was justified. A requirement even. How dare I be grateful when so much horror exists in the world? But I realize something else too, as I write this specific article. I am grateful. Despite the turmoil, outrage, uncertainty, division, anguish, all of it. There are still reasons to practice gratitude, to savor this breath in my lungs and remember what a miracle it is to be alive. 

This culture feels polarizing, but the depth of human connection is indomitable. This virus spreads the contagion of illness and fear, but essential workers heroically fight to keep our communities safe on the frontlines. This political strife and racial inequity have cast a shadow on our nation, but some Americans continue to link arms with one another, raise our voices for the truth, and march for what is right. In the collective heartache of 2020, the spirit of humanity proves itself unconquerable.           

I recall that same feeling washed over me in 2011—I conquered the storm, and I was grateful. So as for the rest of 2020 and the years to come, I am no expert on whatever lies ahead. No one is. But I do know this: I choose gratitude…still.

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