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A Gratitude Journal Improved Her Outlook on Life

When she realized she’d inherited the family trait of complaining, she prayed for help in adjusting her attitude.

An artists's rendering of Jeannette and her mother; illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti

In early 2014, when she was 86, Mom relocated from the mountains of northern California to the prairie of rural Illinois to live closer to us. My husband, Kevin, and I found a lovely apartment for her in an assisted living facility. I was happy to help take care of my mother. Until she arrived. The day after Mom moved into her apartment, she called me to complain about the food at the facility.

“That broccoli at lunch was overcooked. And the pizza crust was like rubber. I couldn’t even eat it.”

“Can you talk to the management?” I said. But I already knew the answer, more or less.

“No, their weekly council meetings, when residents can give their suggestions, are too early in the morning. Besides, I don’t want to complain.”

“Mom, you’re complaining to me. Wouldn’t it make more sense to tell someone who might be able to fix the problem?”

“I’m not complaining to you. Just sharing how I feel.”

We hung up. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples. This was only her second day here. She’ll adjust, I told myself. But week after week, Mom found more to gripe about. I tried empathy: “I’m sorry, Mom. That must feel so frustrating.” Still, she continued to vent.

Kevin and I took Mom to a nice restaurant for Mother’s Day. On the way back to her place, I asked Mom if she enjoyed the meal. I should have known better. “It was fine, I guess. But they had the air conditioner turned up too high—I about froze.”

“Why didn’t you say something, Mom? We would’ve asked them to turn it down.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m a complainer.” I shook my head and glanced at Kevin.

When we got home, Kevin said, “I’m sorry. I know it’s hard to listen to your mom whine day after day.”

Not just hard. Discouraging. Depressing. “I don’t know why it upsets me so much. I grew up hearing Mom grumble.” Actually, a lot of my family members seemed to look on the dark side of life. Good thing I hadn’t inherited this tendency. I might speak up if the waitstaff in restaurants weren’t attentive or if people didn’t have good manners, but nothing like Mom.

At a monthly prayer meeting with my friends Beth and Dee, I spent 20 minutes sharing how Mom’s attitude irritated me. I asked for prayer that Mom would adjust to her new life, so I didn’t have to hear her complain all the time. Beth said, “Why do you think your mom’s gripes annoy you?”

“Because she seems ungrateful. After everything Kevin and I do for her, all we hear is what she doesn’t like.” As the words spilled from my lips, an uneasy feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.

The minute I arrived home, I found Kevin. I didn’t even take off my coat but stood in the doorway of his den. “Do you think I complain a lot, babe?”

Kev hesitated a few seconds before saying, “No, of course not.” But he stared out the window while he spoke. I realized that the family trait of whining had taken root in me. Kevin had never mentioned it. But it wasn’t like him to shine a light on my faults.

I decided to keep a better watch on my tongue. Things went fine for a few weeks. I rejoiced in my growth. But every time the phone rang and Mom’s voice was on the other end, the muscles in my neck and shoulders would tense. I felt a wall of defensiveness spring up. As if Mom were personally attacking me for the cold weather, her neighbors’ standoffishness, the fact that people at church didn’t speak loud enough for her to hear.

After each conversation, I’d stomp into Kev’s den. “How can Mom focus on the one or two things she doesn’t like about every situation? And why am I the only one she feels free to unload on?” The more I bit my tongue in Mom’s presence, the louder my complaining to Kevin grew. The same old complaints.

One night, I prayed, “You have to help me, Lord. My best efforts aren’t working.” It hurt my pride to admit I’d developed the same habit of whining that annoyed me so much in Mom, but I couldn’t deny it any longer. I felt powerless to change by myself.

A few days later, I received a package from my friend Torry. A bright orange journal with one word embossed in gold on its cover: Blessings.

On the first page, Torry had written, “Jeanette, I use a journal like this every day to write things I’m thankful for.”

The next morning, I snuggled into the love seat with our calico cat curled on my lap. I opened the journal and wrote the date, then three things I was grateful for. Number one, friends who encourage me. Two, my caring husband. And three, God’s provision. Contentment filled my heart. Maybe this was it. Not just the missing piece to help me overcome the whining but a joyous replacement. Gratitude.

Over the next few months, as I continued to list blessings each day, I noticed little things I’d been oblivious to. How the wind made the leaves dance. How the grin of a baby peeking out of a stroller lifted my heart.

Looking for things to thank God for led to a deeper shift in me. Life didn’t suddenly become trouble-free. But a new spiritual awareness of the blessings around me made me see how present God was in my life, handing out gift after gift. Including Mom, complaints and all. I couldn’t change her; I could only love her.

At a recent prayer meeting, my friend Dee noted how much my attitude toward Mom had improved.

“When you mention her, you don’t have that edge to your voice anymore,” she said.

Sometimes I still catch myself griping about hard circumstances and difficult people. This venture is not one of those new-attitude-by-Monday projects, but I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for the journey.

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