At the end of the semester, my writing students reflect on the semester, revise their work, and attempt to mine instances of failure for valuable lessons. All semester, I have tried to reframe failure as one of our greatest teachers.
I know a bit about failure, I tell them. More than ever, in the last 16 weeks, my students have taught me a great deal not only about writing, and the power of literacy, but also the importance of resiliency and gratitude.
In their final portfolios, many cited a specific assignment as having meaning for them: the letter of gratitude.
Students wrote to former teachers, coaches, parents, grandparents, guidance counselors, siblings, and friends. For many, this letter garnered not only a response letter from the recipient, but a continuing relationship through letter exchange.
Anecdotally, I noticed that most letters were written to someone who had encouraged them during a deeply difficult time and helped them imagine a way forward. We forget what the word “encouragement” really means.
I know that I see the act of encouragement as giving confidence, hope, or praise to someone, but really look at the heart of the word. It literally means to give someone courage, to help someone see that they are capable of doing something, often difficult, on their own.
2016 humbled me. Deeply. We all have periods in our lives where, like a deep-sea diver with vertigo, we no longer know up from down. Our world, our lives, are forever altered, the terrain alien and uninhabitable. Often these periods have to do with loss, grief, and the pain of letting go.
It’s easy to let our hearts harden. It’s easier to let our hearts turn to stone and to choose anything that numbs the pain, rather than confronting such pain, fear, and change with curiosity and tenderness. My students’ letters of gratitude were reminders that when my heart was a heavy stone, there was only one thing to do—shatter it like a geode and see what mysteries awaited inside. Or, if I was too scared for the swift and sudden smash, I could tap away patiently with the rock hammer of gratitude.
The poet Mary Oliver says, “We need beauty because it makes us ache to be worthy of it.” I always tell my creative writing students that they need to pay attention to what is extraordinary within ordinary life and work to capture it vividly, and so each day this semester, I began listing three things I saw or smelled or heard or tasted or touched that filled me up with momentary joy, delight, or even wonderment.
I began training my eye toward beauty, toward the extraordinary within the ordinary. And honestly, at first it was like using a tablespoon to dig a foundation for a home. It felt impossible. An act of mighty will, like the last mile of a half-marathon mapped entirely uphill.
In the beginning my list was usually something along the lines of my kids, my dog, and coffee. But slowly, my lists became easier to write, and what had once seemed a Hansel and Gretel crumb path grew, on some days, to full blown, albeit metaphorical, French patisseries full of warm croissants, sweet cream butter, and real hot chocolate.
I noticed the pleasure I took in kissing my children’s sleep creased cheeks. I sat in front of the fire and watched it, rather than the television. My friend, Lesha, sent me a wonderful, out of print novel, and I took great pleasure in its weight on my lap, the smell of its paper, the escape I found in its pages. On cold morning walks with dear friends, I delighted in laughter that made me toss my head straight back.
I am always asking my students how they will carry what they have learned in the classroom out into other classes and their lives, their world—how will they make this new knowledge meaningful and useful-- but I rarely ask the same of myself. This semester, I employed daily the same tools I seek to offer my students in the context of writing: reflection, revision, reframing failure as our best teacher.
Gratitude is not a cure all. It isn’t a recipe for easy, immediate happiness. But gratitude connects us, and allows us to pause and articulate what is wonderful in the world and each other. It helps us slow down and get present and consider what is possible in the future. Monday morning still comes down hard. I am still reeling from the election. So much of life requires more than we ever imagined.
And yet there is just so much beauty that once I started seeking it, I didn’t need a rock hammer to crack my heart wide open—the beauty of the extraordinary ordinary did that. And we can all add some beauty to the world in a small and daily way.
Today, take a moment and tell someone, “Thank you.” Tell them what you are thankful for, what you appreciate, what you see and celebrate in them. Watch his or her face change, light up, and break into a smile. Beautiful.
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.