“Our personal experiences and personal growth have everything to do with how we see what is going on in the world.”
“Gratitude turns around negative thoughts, and it’s been proven to stimulate positive chemistry in our bodies. Performing an act of kindness, in our eyes, is putting gratitude into action,” says Julie Shields, the cofounder of Thank Forward, and a proponent for an emphasis on thankfulness.
It seems a silly thing for someone to have to be a proponent of: thankfulness. Still, the stature of our world is shrugging toward dissatisfaction and disapproval. In this day and age—and especially in 2020—we have to intentionally choose to be thankful—choose to be positive.
Since COVID-19 struck, I’ve written a number of pieces to this effect. We’ve talked about cultivating gratitude, about searching for silver linings, about diving into new hobbies and music. While I believe there is a strong connection between our attitudes and our respective actions, we still have to make the conscious effort to act, and that was what struck me about the Thank Forward project.
Recently cofounded by Shields and Mia Logan, Thank Forward is “a project of the heart,” Shields explains, rooted in focus groups about gratitude and how we as humans translate gratitude into kindness. According to Logan’s and Sheilds’s research, many people feel that acts of kindness should remain secret.
“[We heard answers ranging] from, ‘I’d be embarrassed to ask a friend to express gratitude—I would not want them to think I don’t find them grateful already,’ to ‘I don’t want to boast about the kind of things I’ve done. It’s a private thing,’” Sheilds told me. But, she also says, in the era of social media, it’s important to spark movements of kindness by sharing it with the world. “If we can share our stories, we can encourage others to do more acts of kindness,” she encourages, adding, “All are invited to ignite joy in others, and themselves, simply by performing an act of kindness.”
This collective commitment to spreading the literal good work has led to a library of gratitude and positivity, which Logan and Shields share on their website: thankforward.com/shared-stories. There are notes about a neighbor, unsolicited, stopping by to wash windows. And an animal shelter collecting blankets and “hugs” for their dogs. Some of the stories give you the warm fuzzies; some of them light a fire under you to get up and do something good in the world. Both are necessary.
We have the power to incite change; we just have to realize that it begins with us. For some, this introspection comes naturally—although, admittedly, for those of us for whom self study does happen easily, we just as readily slip into narcissism, despair, overwhelm, etc. So, whether we need a push or an edge, it’s useful to have a guide to look within. Enter Karen Loucks Rinedollar, a wearer of many hats, and most recently, the author of “The Virus Journal,” among others (available on Amazon).
“I have found that writing, especially during difficult times, is a cathartic activity. It helps me sort out things by writing them down,” Rinedollar told me. “I tend to be a kinetic learner—the actual act of putting pen to paper helps my brain remember things, work through obstacles and keep focus.”
During our distance learning at the end of last school year, I actually had my two daughters keep a “social distancing diary.” What began as a record of what I considered to be an historically profound movement became a centering practice of reflection. My girls learned to keep track of what was special and noteworthy, and to sort through what was disappointing and difficult. Even for my children, the experience was unique for each. In writing, we created the opportunity for them to be in their feelings, which can sometimes be hard to do as a child in a family, and as a member in a community.
“Our personal experiences and personal growth have everything to do with how we see what is going on in the world. How we work through our personal experience and how we grow from it plays a strong role in how we react to new experiences,” Rinedollar explains. “Just look at how people are responding to COVID! Some refuse to wear masks, others won’t leave their homes. Some see this as the end of the world, others see it as an uncomfortable blip in time. I developed the journal so people could have a safe place to share their thoughts without anyone else screaming in their faces, telling them they are wrong.”
Rinedollar adds, “The significance of introspection is that it takes one out of being ‘The Actor,’ who reacts to life, and puts one more in control as ‘The Director,’ setting the scene and dictating how things will go.” None of us have control over COVID-19, of course, any more than we have control over the regulations following it, the change of the weather or any other goings-on in the wild blue yonder. But Rinedollar’s comment struck me all the same because it is a return to self-consciousness. When we become conscious of ourselves, of where we are in our society, our history, our world, we are also equipped to make a difference.
The quarantine period of coronavirus was touted as a pivotal moment for such change. Could we, as a human race, take the lessons we learned in scaling back life to its purest form and apply them to life once it “returned to normal?”
I have one friend who has been taking walks with her kids, and they are cataloging the kindness rocks they find on the trails. Another friend taught herself to tie-dye while socially distancing at a cabin. These aren’t your average 8-year-old’s tie-dye kit creation. They are works of art, from tea towels and handkerchiefs to t-shirts and baby onesies. She dries them on a line in the sun and then she carefully wraps them up and mails them to people around the country, a colorful little surprise for them to open up on some otherwise dull Tuesday afternoon.
In the last month, I have received more notes from readers than I did in my entire first year as a writer at this magazine—and in nearly all of them, the reader was recommending I reach out to someone they knew, someone deserving of attention.
It can be as simple as sharing a story… creating a record; as sending love through art; as thinking of someone else before yourself. These are minute acts but they are catalytic. Maybe you’ll see the result immediately, or maybe it will ripple on and on throughout the universe touching more and more people as it grows.