A little over a month ago, I decided I’d practice conscientious gratitude; taking a moment at the end of each day to think and write about things I was grateful for that day. At the very minimum, I was to think and write about one thing – even if it be just my breath. Thus began the “Gratitude Journal Challenge” on Feb. 3. It’s been 40 days since; I’m ready to share my experience.
The Gratitude Challenge
All in all, things went according to plan. I wrote daily, and on average was thankful for at least two things. A number of names made my list (including Baby Paulo – who I met at a BBQ), as did great conversations (with Polymat Group founder Absatou Ndiaye, Ghubar Magazine’s Sarah Diouf, Go-Woman contributor Yacine Bio-Tchane, my sister Annatu, among others), crêpes, music (Don Joen, Cwesi Oteng) weather (sun breaking through the clouds, sunsets), downtime (bed and rest, naps, quiet, time, escapes, afternoons off), did I mention crepes?, waking up early, food (food in the fridge, cooking inspiration, free food), stuff I read (“Bird by Bird”), stuff I wrote (my “Dear Jemi” and “Dear God” notes over the years).
I can honestly say that my general well-being improved – I was waking up earlier, having thought-out, well-balanced meals (even taking homemade food to work!), was productive at work, was more attentive in my salat (prayers) and reading the Qu’ran more. Gratitude for a year? Easy peasy, it’s a total breeze! That’s what I thought to myself. Until February 28. There was no entry for that day; nor were there for the days after until March 12. Two weeks and nothing to be grateful for? What happened?
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin
The simple truth is that clouds had gathered and I was swimming in darkness. Mind you, there was nothing untoward going on in my life in general o; it was all internal. I was literally dripping in my fears, judgments, resentments, regrets, questions, uncertainties. And that? Well, that made me dissatisfied and everything else collapse into itself. Out with gratitude, in with discontent.
Holding Back or Hiding Your Gifts
If anyone had told me the day would come when I would “censor” myself, I might have had a good laugh. But the day had come. And it was not quite the laughing matter. In fact, it was quite frustrating. I’d feel the words come upon me and instead of grabbing some paper or getting on my computer as I’d normally do, I’d wait it out. And there I’d be, some hours later, with the unexpressed thoughts, words literally choking me.
I’ve always said that I’m an open book. And for the most part, that’s true. I’ve never really had a problem saying what was on my mind, nor have I had a problem expressing my disagreement about a theory, idea, or argument. I’ve always been someone who puts myself out there. Although, I will admit I tend to tread the ‘diplomatic’ line on particularly contentious things.
Why was I self-censoring? Well, partly because I’ve come upon new territory job-wise and I’m still trying to find my balance considering I do have certain obligations – which I didn’t necessarily as a student. And so I kind of just went silent online, especially when I realized some colleagues were following me on Twitter. How do you balance your personal and your professional vis-a-vis online interactions? A number of people have asked me that and my answer has always been ‘You shouldn’t have to if you’re being true to you. You’re the common denominator”.
It seems I gave out some advise and forgot to dish myself a huge serving. The other part was because I was trying to be more ‘zen’ when it came to online interactions; to not post things out of knee jerk reactions (because everyone is), to be mindful of the impressions I’m propagating. But as Kajsa Halberg Adu eloquently said during Blogging Ghana’s G+ Hangout on Facebook & Social Media in Africa, “I’m not a brand, I’m a human being”.
You see, in my attempt to find ‘balance’ vis-a-vis my professional obligations and my private life, I forgot this important truth about myself: I’m not just a content/information consumer, I’m a content/information producer. I’m expressive in many ways – but primarily in word. I create. Not because it’s a hip, artsy, cool thing to do, but because if I don’t, I die, or more accurately, I kill myself slowly.
Trying to be all ‘zen’ wasn’t helping either. I’d forgotten what my creative process is. People often ask me – how do you get everything done? You’re so active online. I usually just smile, but the weird thing is I work best when I multi-task. I create in the midst of activity. Right before I write anything, I get restless, fidgeting. It’s in the midst of the external activity – the goings-on and chaos – that I find my quiet, that the words finally settle upon me and rearrange themselves on the paper or screen. Likewise when my hormonal balance is a bit off – I literally have verbal diarrhea (my online activity during such periods is testament to this). Why? Because there are no inhibitions, I literally ‘lose control’, give myself over to the process.
Giving: An Act of Gratitude
So that’s what happened. I censored/silenced myself and in effect, cut off the very things that get me inspired, pulsating, doing. And then there’s that other matter of not feeling like “a real writer”and feeling that I wasn’t doing anything concrete with my writing anyway, because what’s there to prove it? When many creatives have physical products to show for their work and you claim to be a writer but don’t even have a ‘book’ to show for it, you begin to question.
“You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” – Khalil Gibran
Comme normale, Mr. Gibran hit the nail on the head. When it boils down to it, it’s not about the physical. Rarely is. We might dress it up as such “I don’t have enough money, I don’t have a car, I don’t have the latest Louis Vuitton bag”, but at the core, it’s not even tangible. It’s more like “I don’t feel secure, I wish I was more mobile, I want to feel appreciated”.
In attempting to focus on being more grateful for all I have, am, I closed up. I neglected to actively give, particularly of myself and as a consequence, my world closed up into the four walls of my room; to two weeks of existential questioning and loneliness that was incomprehensible to say the least. By March 8, I got wind of the situation and wrote this piece on censorship, freedom and responsibility. It’s one thing to self-censor and another to do so because you have little to no choice.
On March 12 I finally made another journal entry; my first in two weeks. What did it say?
“Thankful for: Insights, Encouragement, Work recognized.”
It was the “Hold the Future” video campaign I’d done with RPC. But that’s not all, it was an affirmation of myself as a writer and a reminder about why I create, or rather, allow myself to be used as a creative medium. A call to remember my motivations for sharing things – to inspire; precisely because you never know who might need a picker upper. And finally, to tell my truth – the good, the bad, the ugly. All of it. Unapologetically.
So, my big takeaway from my “almost 40 days” of conscientious gratitude is this: Being grateful can expand your life, if you let it. You pay more attention, recognize things you’d normally let slip by unnoticed, but it boils down to what you focus on. In trying to be more grateful you might come face to face with your greatest discontents. Will you slip up? Probably. But if you strive on, you will get to the point where you can sit in the room with both your contentment and discontent, but choose to lay your head on the shoulder of contentment while smiling unabashedly at your discontent.
In practicing gratitude there will be days when you ask yourself “Why should I be grateful?”. If you can’t say or write anything, take a deep breath, then push on. It will be gratitude enough. Finally, stay open to the experience, give of yourself. To whom much is given, much is expected. You do not know who or what will show up each day – or as is my current case, who or what will show up two weeks later.
It’s Day 41 of the gratitude journal challenge and I’m paying my dues for the past two weeks. Today, I’m grateful for the gift of expression and for the opportunity to share that with all of you every chance I get.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.