Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

September 9, 2015

Counting Your Blessings – A Wish for the New Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Life's Toolbox @ 2:30 am
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We have been to too many funerals of young people. We have visited too many hospital beds. We have watched too many horrific news stories, witnessed too many seniors struggle with loneliness and illness. In the days ahead, like so many others, I will pray that the new year brings us brighter days, good health for all, peace and prosperity. And I will have unwavering faith, that those things I cannot understand are guided by a power much wiser than I. But neither my prayers nor my faith will prevent me from a realistic acceptance that life may continue to come with significant challenges, and even gut wrenching pain. So I am thinking, if I dig deep in my toolbox, is there a tool that might help?

So much is being written about optimism, the power of believing in possibilities, and focusing on the good, rather than the bad. Another positive mindset receiving a lot of attention is gratitude. These notions of positivity may be a cornerstone of modern positive psychology, but grandmas of generations ago were already combining them into great wisdom, advising us to count our blessings. They did not, interestingly, only offer this advice on sunny days and in good times. “Count your blessings” was a mantra for dealing with some very non-blessing like contingencies.

Are there some secrets to make counting your blessings work for us? Is there a manual teaching us how to do this? Since we cannot count what we cannot see, the first step to the optimistic, resilient mindset of blessings is to notice them. This is easy when all goes well, when we are blessed with health, wealth, happiness. It is sometimes easy to notice our blessings when we see those less fortunate. When we witness the pain of others, even those very close to us, the slight distance from the epicenter of trauma allows us to resonate with our blessings. But when life directly challenges us, when we feel least blessed, can we look deeper? Can we find the kind words of a friend or stranger that are, in fact, a blessing? Can we shift our focus from the trauma of a loss to note instead what we have not lost? And is this even possible or appropriate?

There was a time when a popular cognitive psychological tool was something called thought exchanging. Patients would be taught to replace negative, depressive or anxiety producing thoughts with positive but realistic alternatives. This is a powerful technique, but in terms of counting blessings, a bit simplistic, and almost insensitive. Imagine someone who has lost a loved one, survived a trauma, struggling with illness, wouldn’t it seem absurd to advise them to “replace your negative thinking with a focus on your blessings” . Thankfully, the amazing truth about the human psyche is that we need not replace one set of thoughts with another, our minds have room for both. We can mourn, grieve, hurt deeply, worry intensely, and all the while, count our blessings. We can cry at the pain of a beloved relative in one moment, and smile at the antics of an adorable toddler. We can swell with pride at a child’s accomplishments, even as we note with distress the deterioration of our elders.

Counting our blessings is a tool, not a panacea. Blessings are not the antivenom, neutralizing all life’s poisons. They are our emotional vitamins, building us, strengthening us, giving us the nutrients we need to move forward.

The beginning of the academic year, and following close on its heels, the Jewish new year prompt both introspection and consideration of how we will change, what we will do different this year. We may spend the new year praying for blessings, for ourselves, our families, our communities, and for the world. Perhaps, at the same time, we should pray for the wisdom to see the blessings in our lives, when they are obvious, and when they are not. While we pray for a year with no sadness, no struggle, no catastrophe, no pain we should pray, too, that no matter what happens, no matter what painful, difficult thoughts we harbor, we can, at the same time feel ourselves blessed.

May we be inscribed for a wonderful year of blessings



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