It's November, the month of Thanksgiving, which means that folks on Facebook are celebrating the 30 Days of Thankfulness. Last week a friend me asked if I knew the origins of this practice. I don't know where it started, but I'm touched that she would associate it with me. The 30 days is a burst of positive energy in an often snarky and cranky social media universe...
My friend Marci has decided not to participate because of the potential for bragbooking. I'm sympathetic to her concerns. My next book looks at technology and digital culture from a spiritual perspective. As I research, I'm finding various studies suggesting that Facebook has the potential to decrease people's happiness. One person's gratitude is another person's braggadocio. We end up comparing other people's outsides to our insides, or as I saw it expressed somewhere, everyone else's sizzle reel to our blooper reel.
But I'm not sure the answer, for me, anyway, is to sit out the practice altogether. After all---and Marci points this out herself---gratitude is a spiritual practice.
Where's the challenge in being thankful when you're on top of the world? It's considerably harder to see gratitude in ordinary life as it chugs along. And when things are downright crappy, gratitude can be transforming, the tiny candle you wrap your fingers around to keep the darkness at bay.
Social media is here to stay. People are welcome to dip in and out of it, or take long breaks, or hide the gratitude posts that make them crazy, or whatever they need to do for their own mental and spiritual health. As someone who takes tech sabbaths every week, I believe you're under no obligation to consume social media the way other people do. But it is a part of our lives. So it seems worthwhile to practice engaging with it in ways that are hospitable to others and gracious to yourself.
So here's how the 30-day gratitude challenge can be helpful and not an exercise in bragbooking. I offer these as someone who studies social media and digital culture, and as a pastor who has taught and practiced the Ignatian examen (a practice of gratitude and discernment) for many years.
1. Go beyond the obvious. At the women's retreat I led this weekend, I gave them an icebreaker question to answer in small groups: "It's just not Thanksgiving without..." But I specifically told them, "You can't say 'family' or 'my grandkids.'" I hope this caveat invited them to share something more specific and personal.
My friend Kristen posted a great moment of thankfulness this weekend: "Hair - as a fresh 'do can literally change you. [My hairdresser] has been a steady presence in my life since 2004 when I wandered into the salon where she worked. 9 years, 2 salons, 4 jobs (me), 5 kids (hers plus mine) and countless haircuts, highlights and hairstyles later - I'm proud to call her friend and stylist extraordinaire."
No bragbooking there. Just a touching tribute by a fabulous, sassy gal. Kristen's update invites me into gratitude for the folks who provide services for me and the friendships that can develop.
It also makes me consider getting highlights. Again.
2. Think small. The examen is meant to be a daily practice. And often our most grateful moment is not the biggest headline of the day, but the moment that took our breath away. Maybe you got a huge raise at work (I know, in this economy? hey, it could happen), but the breathtaking moment was the act of kindness you saw in the line at Starbucks. Gratitude can be a trickster.
3. Be specific. "I'm thankful for my health" may be true. And for someone who's battled cancer, or recovered from an injury, that's huge. But consider how your update sounds to a friend whose health is a source of stress, or who's in a chronic struggle with an illness. Instead, how about a specific thing your health allowed you to enjoy today? I'm thankful that I could pick up my big kindergartner today without my back going out.
4. Violate the Zaxxon rule. At the end of every Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, the host and guests share "what's making us happy this week." The idea is to recommend interesting movies, TV or books to the audience. During an early episode Stephen Thompson gushed about the Zaxxon video game he'd recently purchased. Later the group realized that it wasn't the best "what's making me happy," since it's not like everyone can go out and buy a Zaxxon machine. They instituted the Zaxxon rule to keep them accountable to share stuff that other people could reasonably partake of.
When it comes to gratitude, we should violate, rather than follow, the Zaxxon rule. That cuts down on comparisons. I am grateful for the flame of color from the Japanese maple in my front yard. That's very particular to my situation. You don't feel bad for not having a Japanese maple in your yard, do you?
5. Confront the bragbooker. Do it publicly only if you can do it lightheartedly, otherwise in private. Is it crazy to think we could do this, in the spirit of authenticity and friendship? Maybe. I realize this is hard. But if my posts are providing a stumbling block to someone, I want to know it. We're all works in progress, folks. We can help one another along.
Are you participating in the 30 days of gratefulness? Why or why not?