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Amy Lynn Smith
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Cultivating gratitude

Every moment is a chance to experience gratitude, even if it doesn’t feel that way.

I’m still learning this lesson, and I have to keep reminding myself. But in every moment — with every breath — there’s something to be grateful for. If you really can’t think of anything else to appreciate, be thankful for another breath. And another, and another.

I’ve always been a goal-setter. I used to make New Year’s resolutions, but like most people I made myself promises I could barely keep for the first day of the year, alone for 365 of them. Then I started setting yearly goals, and soon wised up and allowed myself the latitude to revisit those goals every quarter, every month — every day, even. It’s not that I don’t stick to my goals. In fact, many of them carry over year after year because they’re worthy goals. But you have to give yourself permission to refine, relax or replace those goals with something that works better.

Lately, the yearly practice I gravitate to the most is keeping a gratitude jar. All it takes is an empty jar, some notepaper and a pen, and the willingness to pause and write down something you’re grateful for. After seeing the idea on a friend’s Facebook page, I filled my first jar in 2015. I’ve been doing it ever since, and just dropped the first note of gratitude into the jar for 2018.

There’s something enormously satisfying about watching a jar fill up with your thankfulness over a year. The beauty of a gratitude jar is that you don’t have to write much. It’s just a scrap of paper. I don’t force myself to write every day, but I scribble something when the urge strikes me. Maybe I feel a surge of gratitude or appreciation. Or maybe something meaningful happens and I take a moment to note it, along with the date, and to feel thankful. There are also days when I feel like there’s nothing to be grateful for, and I make myself find something — anything — to appreciate. It doesn’t ever take me long to come up with something.

The sight of the jar filling up reminds me to feel grateful, and motivates me to find more reasons to make that jar overflow (remember: I’m goal-oriented). Then at the end of each year, I go through all the slips of paper one by one, reliving the year’s moments of gratitude — jumbled and out of order, but almost more meaningful that way because those moments add up to a whole that isn’t bound by time and space. Sure, the notes evolve as my life does, but with hindsight it’s the sum total that really resonates with me. The many little reasons for gratitude really add up.

In talking with others who practice gratitude regularly — or who want to — one central concept is consistent: Taking a moment to experience gratitude cultivates more gratitude. The more grateful you feel, the more reasons you’ll find to be grateful.

I know it’s unlikely that I’ll be consistent enough to drop a note in my gratitude jar every day this year. After all, I have decades worth of journals with only the first few pages filled in before they were abandoned. But maybe this year I’ll try adding one note to the jar each day. Because the days when feeling grateful seems impossible are the days when gratitude is needed the most.

The strength of stories to create change

All of us who work in social change know that it doesn’t happen overnight. But in the early morning hours of a late July day I woke to discover that something significant had changed overnight — and I firmly believe stories played a central role.

I’m talking about the vote in the U.S. Senate that may well mark the final defeat of Republicans’ efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. I went to bed anxious about what I’d find when I arose, but comforted myself that I’d done everything I could and would keep up all my efforts if the fight continued.

I made my voice heard to my elected officials, I attended rallies, I wrote letters to the editor and, most important of all, I told stories of the Americans whose lives have been changed for the better by the ACA, including my own. My storytelling project was inspired by my work on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and has continued ever since. The stories I began writing to demonstrate the ACA’s value suddenly became vital to protecting its existence.

I believe the stories told by countless Americans made a difference. They elevated the human condition over the often wonky discourse around health insurance and healthcare, giving people on both sides of the aisle a reason to fight for something better than a purely political agenda: people’s lives.

When my friends at frank invited me to answer the question “Does activism work?” for a piece in their newsletter, I was delighted to respond in the affirmative.

One voice at a time, we can steer the conversation in one direction or another. We can make people think, whether they like it or not, about our view. When enough people share the same view — and say it out loud — it becomes impossible to ignore. A storm of public opinion is formed drop by drop, until it becomes a wave crashing on the shore.

You can read my thoughts about how activism helped change the conversation about health reform, along with the insights some of my fellow franksters shared about their work, in the frank newsletter.

On learning something new every day

“There are no days off from learning,” a friend said to me recently. And it struck me that of all the lessons I will take away from the 2017 frank gathering, it’s that those of us who work in social change must be lifelong learners. We must be willing to learn something new every day — to challenge our assumptions, to say “I don’t know” and to be curious enough to seek answers to the tough questions about the world around us and the work we do.

I’m not surprised by the infusion of information and inspiration I received during the three days of frank, the annual gathering of social change communicators. I came prepared to learn from people who are at the top of their field and the top of their game. What I didn’t necessarily expect was to hear many of those people talk about their relentless pursuit of improvement. They recognize that the work we do — instigating and implementing positive change — can’t be mastered through complacency. It demands that we embrace the challenge of every day as if our lives depended on it. And when we’re championing issues like affordable healthcare, environmental protection or racial justice, people’s lives actually do depend on it.

During the closing ceremonies, Ann Christiano, creative director of frank and Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida, spoke of the value of virtuosity. Watch her talk online to fully appreciate her message, but these are the words that stuck with me most indelibly: “We must always strive to be our best. We must always self-correct and look for the opportunity to be better.”

Virtuosity is fueled, in part, by curiosity, which was the theme of this year’s frank gathering. We were given a Commonplace Book in which to capture “curious musings.” I covered many pages with ideas from the speakers and sessions I was most curious about, and as I continue filling pages with reflections and revelations I feel certain there will be no holding back the renewed sense of curiosity this year’s gathering unleashed in me.

Now that I’m back at work, I’m reminded of the words of the late, great Wendy Wasserstein, which have long been a mantra for me: “How will you use what you know?”

Some of what I learned at frank is immediately influencing my work, like a bolt of lightning. I’m already putting smarter communication strategies to use, whether they’re concepts that were new to me or approaches I’ve always employed but am applying in more imaginative, innovative ways thanks to what I learned.

But I suspect that what will be even more valuable are the ideas and inspirations that will seep in almost invisibly, like rays of sunshine, over the days and months to come. Our skin tingles with joy when it’s touched by the sun, but the benefits of what our bodies absorb go much deeper. I’m confident that frank will nourish my mind and spirit not just in the moment, but as I continue to pursue curiosity and virtuosity in every aspect of my work and my life at large.

The words of Bridgit Antoinette Evans will echo in my head, perhaps forever. She spoke of “soulful disruptions,” and her frank talk reminded me that who we are is a direct influence on the work we do. I know I’ll also be guided often by the wisdom of Rashad Robinson, who said, “People don’t experience issues. They experience life.” When I’m writing about issue advocacy or telling people’s stories, that truth will provide a meaningful frame for my work. And then there’s Trey Kay, whose Us & Them podcast explores our country’s cultural divides. He said, “When you’re trying to save the world, sometimes you have to recognize that it’s you who must change.” Change is an inevitable part of life — it’s in the name of the work we do: social change. When we see others resistant to changing in the ways we ask them to, it’s important to remember that every one of us can experience that same stubbornness.

Moving forward, I will draw strength and inspiration from the many frank speakers who talked about empathy and hope and optimism. All of these virtues may feel in short supply right now, but after frank I know they are bountiful and necessary to positive action. Just as necessary as the willingness to stay curious, always.

Every day is an opportunity to open our minds and our hearts to new solutions to thorny problems. I’m grateful for the inspiration of the frank community — and the infinite resources it provides for honing our skills and discovering the best use of our talents. From the talks posted online to a new online master’s program in Public Interest Communications launching later this year to a thriving tribe of do-gooders who stay connected and collaborative through frank, there is a steady supply of new things to learn, every single day.

[Photo credits: Top photo by Amy Lynn Smith; other photos courtesy of frank on Facebook].

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