How to find gratitude in turbulent times

November 19, 2020


As 2020 winds down and Thanksgiving approaches, University Chaplain Craig Kocher discussed the guiding principle of the season — gratitude. He views it as a universal virtue that serves to build a life of meaning, purpose, and showing compassion to others.

In a recent interview he explained why we can still feel grateful even when optimism is in short supply. Many of 2020’s challenges, he said, offer the opportunity to focus on what really matters.

“Gratitude is not something that comes naturally for a lot of us,” Kocher said. “It has to be practiced. In the same way exercise strengthens our muscles, practicing gratitude strengthens and enlarges our soul.”

How can we cultivate gratitude into our everyday lives — even in stressful times?

Gratitude helps us see the abundance of life at a time when everything feels absent. When so much of what makes life normal is scarce — daily contact with others, travel, family gatherings and celebrations, simple routines — a posture of gratitude can serve to reframe and focus our attention on the abundance of what we have rather than on what is missing. We are likely to discover we have all we really need and more.

How has a year like 2020 affected our ability to show gratitude?

I think particularly in the midst of incredible anxiety — from COVID-19 to the tumult of the election, to economic fragility and social injustice — practicing gratitude has the possibility to serve two purposes: It deepens our empathy and compassion for others. The more we are aware of how much heartache there is in the world, the more our hearts break for others and we are moved to action. At the same time, we become more aware of the blessings that we enjoy in our own lives and thus become less anxious and more settled. Those are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing.

Be mindful of the gift of having a warm place to be on a cold rainy day when you’re working from home. The gift of feeling connected via technology even when we’re all exhausted by Zoom fatigue.
headshot of Craig Kocher
Craig Kocher

Jessie Ball duPont Chair of the Chaplaincy

What can we be grateful for during times of crisis?

Oftentimes, they are really simple things. To be mindful of the gift of having a warm place to be on a cold, rainy day when you’re working from home. The gift of being around family 24/7 even when you want to strangle them. The gift of feeling connected via technology even when we’re all exhausted by Zoom fatigue. The gift of being a part of a community like UR where everybody is working so hard to accomplish a vital mission. The gift of health when we’re so profoundly aware of those who are not in good health. Such a posture of thanks lends itself to a deeper awareness of how others are struggling and to wonder, “How can my own gratitude become a source of compassion and encouragement for someone else?”

In a year that has seemed so negative, how can gratefulness lead to something positive?

Maybe one of the gifts that can come out of this time of incredible negativity is a re-centering on that which really matters. Perhaps we’ll learn not to sweat the small stuff so much. I’m hopeful that when the new horizon dawns and some of this anxiety begins to dissipate we’ll come out of it with a deeper collective sense of the things that really matter and try to shape our individual lives and communities toward those ends.

Difficult periods in time have remained a constant throughout history — how can we look to the past for guidance?

The Thanksgiving season has an extraordinary history. President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving should be a national holiday in 1863 at the height of the Civil War. It was not clear then how the war was going to end. Yet in the midst of that horror, Lincoln said we need a national day of Thanksgiving to stop and be thankful for what we have. It’s a vivid historical reminder that cultivating a spirit of gratefulness becomes all the more important amid the most difficult times.

We need poignant, life-affirming, joyful moments that reinforce the goodness of life, the joy of life, to help us see all that we have rather than what we don’t have.