Two Thankfully-Ruined Gratitude Practices




She ruined two gratitude practices.
One person.
She ruined two gratitude practices I had enjoyed and heretofore had swore by.

I don’t really blame Sara-Jean, a former mentee of mine since 1996—now nearly 40, mother of three, PhD in education, and professor at USC.

Truthfully, I blame her cancer, not her.




“Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass.




In 2007, after returning from a vacation and hearing myself gripe—“Oh, it was a lovely trip, except I lost my favorite shirt and the contents of my belly within four hours of arriving at the beach”—I start Will Bowen’s 21-day no-complaint challenge.

I mean, what the heck is wrong with me?
People ask me about a cruise I was fortunate enough to be on and I downplay it?!

So, I start the challenge of not complaining for 21 days.

It’s as simple as it sounds.
You try to go 21 days without complaining.

It takes me nearly four months until I got the full 504 hours in a row.
But I do it.

My brain is forever changed.

(What helped the most was learning to respond to “How are you?” with the self-reminder “I can’t complain.”)

I tell people, “It’s the most powerful spiritual exercise I have ever done.”

I recommend every tries it.

Well I did.

Until Sara-Jean’s cancer when I decry this exercise as bunk.

I’ll explain why in a moment.




Ten years later—and a few years after my buddy Jill and I begin our routine of sending each other a bedtime text of things for which we were grateful—one of us finds an article on Huffington Post about something called “inverse gratitude.”

Spoiler alert: SJ’s cancer will ruin this one too.

Inverse gratitude is a twist on regular gratitude. But instead of writing about the delicious strawberry you ate that day or the soft feeling of clothing on your arms, all that is allowed on the nightly gratitude lists are things that had annoyed us that day.

So, when Emmett wakes at four in the morning screaming from a nightmare, I text Jill the next evening, “I’m grateful that Emmett woke me at four in the morning with a nightmare.”

The mental shift is amazing.

Other examples —
“I’m thankful that my car got a flat.”
“I am glad that my flight was late.”

This went really well.
Until Sara-Jean’s cancer returned.

“I can’t do it,” I text Jill while stifling my body’s natural desire to twitch and shake in anger.
“I am simply NOT at all grateful for SJ’s cancer’s return.”

Jill and I return to our standard gratitude practice the next day.




While maintaining eye contact with the high school students in my classroom—a practice that will land me in physical therapy—I write on the whiteboard:

Thankfulness – Complaints = Gratitude

I explain to the young people (who never asked to be in school, so I’m trying to fill their minds with as much wisdom as possible), “The amount of gratitude you have in a day can be calculated by taking the number of moments of your verbalized thankfulness and subtracting the number of verbalized complaints.”



I used to think the goal was to not ever complain.

It’s not.

It’s just not.

The goal is to complain less.

To complain only about the things for which we need comfort.

Our complaining allows others to know that we have a need for comfort.

If I do not complain, I cut myself off from the care I might desperately need.

When a loved one gets a cancer diagnosis, we need support, we need community, we need love.



“Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students I have learned more than from all of them.”

Taanit 7a




Sara-Jean currently has no evidence of disease.

Thank you, Sara-Jean, for teaching me so much.

Saturdays at 8am PT

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With love,
Rabbi Brian

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