Source: Lian Ryan-Hume

I’m back home from the Bodleian library, where seats are scarce these days, and all I can think of is getting rid of the day. I spent more than 5 hours facing the glare of my laptop screen doing work that I’m afraid is just not enough work for the time I took, according to my critical ringmaster-mind. Compounding the dreariness is a 20-minute walk back home in the biting cold, with slow pricks of languid rain falling from a sky nearly extinguished of all its sun. Hungry, tired and heavy-eyed, I now take out my phone with still-shivering hands and start typing a hasty message to my ‘gratitude partner’—a dear friend from another side of the world.

“Grateful for: 1) getting at least a little work done today 2) for my family, that sent me cheerful messages” I send. A few minutes later, I receive her own gratitude list for the day. 

This is how a typical gratitude partnership works — you pick a person you love and trust, and share a few things you are grateful for, every day. It doesn’t have to invoke your inner perfectionist with long texts or immaculate pieces of prose that would take several minutes to formulate. My friend and I have been exchanging such non-committal, brief gratitude lists on WhatsApp for a week now, and so far, it has only felt motivating. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not the only one trudging through my days in the middle of a global psycho-pathological crisis.

In pre-pandemic times, besides Thanksgiving, gratitude might have been a thing of religious wisdom, Ted Talks and motivational videos. But today, we have to manage innumerable inflections and complications to our once-automatic routines. There are the curfews and intricate restrictions, the unnerving anxieties that take away sleep, and frustrating homestays due to obligations of self-isolation. And then there is the ever-mounting work, compounded by the blurring of the sacred boundaries between spaces of home and university. Add to these, worries of the unanticipated future, now more contingent and uncertain than ever. Gratitude has thus emerged for people of our times as a mode of survival—it is no longer the occasional or optional attribute it once was in most of our lives.

Unsurprisingly, social media was the first to report this thought-shift, as noted through their popularity on aestheticized Instagram edits, while others appear in the more utilitarian statuses of Facebook. Mindset coach and speaker Lian RyanHume, reading at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, regularly shares motivational posts and gratitude lists to her 1500-odd followers on Instagram. Although it’s a practice that’s surged during the pandemic, for Lian, who has been negotiating multiple chronical illnesses since her formative years, gratitude lists have been an invigorating ritual for the past three years. “There is something very empowering in waking up and taking a few minutes to yourself to reflect and list things that put a smile on your face. It is a total game changer and a mindset shift”, she says, adding that she now uses her gratitude lists as ways to manifest the things to come in her future.

The scales and objects of such lists always vary. Lian herself started out with being grateful for a cup of coffee, or in the precarious situations that her illnesses presented, for the opportunity to even wake up. This year, for the vast majority of us, it is the smallest of such things in life that have taken on magnified meanings in never-ending lockdowns. The bed you get to sleep on? The shower? A sense of humour? Gratitude lists have several such entries all over the world, with more than 490,000 posts on Instagram on the subject. It is pertinent that we have all experienced the pandemic in varying degrees owing to the specific conditions brought about by our backgrounds and privileges. Yet, if there is a common takeaway for all of us in this, it might be that a significant proportion of our life is lived in and supported by the micro-events of the everyday — the once-mundane and quotidian pre-pandemic realities, the normal we took for granted.

So far in the pandemic, a variety of global trends have sprung up, and there is a question to ask as to whether gratitude lists are merely a hashtag or a trend. Are they tokenistic and performative, practised only for conformity’s sake and social media limelight? Arguably, even if this is very plausible, the popularity of gratitude and its mass-adoption as a worldview is always desirable—not only for personal growth and well-being, but for the broader and more permanent shifts in global human behaviour and mental health that this collective attitude could catalyse. This may include tempering the greed, competition and toxic notions of productivity prevalent in our societies–not to forget, fresh insecurities and anxieties from the pandemic–by instilling in their place, mindful behaviour and contentment for all the basic and complex privileges that sustain us.  

I take out the contents of my backpack. Groceries. A bill from the supermarket, that reads in the very bottom of the page, “if you are finding it lonely and difficult in these uncertain times…”, then a phone number to a helpline. I also remember a book I had seen advertised on a shelf in my college library— “Anxiety: A Brief Introduction”. In a playing out of what Homi Bhabha calls “history’s most intricate invasions” in our private spheres, clearly, everything around us rehearses the theme of this historical juncture in our lives quite well. Things have begun to speak to us, reminding us that we might be lonely, anxious, or finding it difficult.

Perhaps it’s true then, the terrible suspicion that undercuts our surface optimism—we shall never return to a pre-pandemic state of normalcy again. Not to the many events involving people and the outdoors, days and weeks with predictable outcomes and political leaders that knew what they were saying or doing. Or, a certain version of ourselves we knew before the pandemic, as people in control of our days. Perhaps none of this is coming back, and yet, as much as the things around us speak to us, we need to speak to things back and acknowledge their presence in our lives, and practising gratitude is the route to achieving this.

We cannot influence outcomes, but what we can endeavour to learn is the seemingly simple but rare art of living with the awareness, no matter how fleeting, of the gift of being healthy, loved or simply, alive.

Images courtesy of Lian Ryan-Hume

Amrita Shenoy

Amrita is a student of the MSt in World Literatures in English at St Hugh's college. She delights in the small and ordinary events of the everyday and loves to write, travel, eat and engage with people and cultures.