I was in the most unlikely of places when I received a reminder about the value of gratitude.
I was recently called in for Jury Duty. Or rather, Jury Selection. I received the very official letter some time last year and I dutifully returned the missive as instructed, hoping that writing SOCIAL WORKER in big capital letters under occupation would dissuade them from any sort of follow up call to attend to the nearest court house. I mean, what lawyer is going to want the morally strict therapy chick to sit there and judge on their client? I was more than a bit startled to be informed in a short while that I was indeed selected and would need to appear for a potentially full day or longer event along with nearly 150 other possible jurors.
For anyone not familiar with the Canadian process of Jury Selection, it involves a lot of line ups and a lot of pissed off people.
Essentially, we all arrived with paperwork in hand and were shuffled a bit like straining cattle through the too small doors, down a too small hallway, up a too small set of stairs, into a too small foyer, and another set of too small stairs into a, you guessed it, too small court room. Then our juror numbers were called, and the presiding judge made decisions based on people’s upcoming medical appointments, surgeries, self-employment status, or in my case, my profession and whether that should excuse us from needing to be selected. If there is nothing to bar them from participating as a jury member, they’re sent over to the jury box. This is repeated until the box is full and the trial can begin.
I went into this experience a bit eager. I had never even been to our local court room, and having a lay-of-the-land when you’re a social worker is never a bad idea – to help guide someone who may need to know how to get there or where to attend for a meeting. I even picked up some lovely brochures and pamphlets about the justice system and family court. Definitely valuable in my office.
So overall, I was feeling pretty chipper. I was even a little excited to stand in a court room. Would I get to have an Elle Woods moment? Would I pass Jim Carrey in the bathroom, fighting with the sink and screaming about blue ink? I was a little star struck with the pomp and circumstance. The ‘All Rise’ would get called, and maybe I’d get to address the Judge as ‘Your Honour’.
As you can tell, I have just enough information and movie stereotypes to be dangerous. I knew a more practical and factual portrayal of the court system could only do me good. So I went into this experience with an open mind and some eagerness to learn.
However, not only did I learn about the court process that day, but I also learned some interesting things about my fellow jurors. There’s a lot you can gleam from just being silent in a crowd and taking it all in. I obviously cannot disclose anything that occurred in the court room, or the details of the trial and defendant, but there was still plenty to overhear before we even set foot in the court room.
I learned that putting people in a line does not always keep them in said line, as we ended up losing nearly a quarter of the whole jury to some unknown part of the court house.
I learned that when they tell you to arrive by 8:30 AM promptly, they really don’t think you will, because they don’t even schedule the selections until 10:30 AM.
I also learned that writing that boldly on a sign in the same hallway is a sure fire way to cause a revolt for the people who arrived even earlier than that.
I learned that they sometimes schedule jury selections on the same day as Youth Court hearings, and I didn’t envy those young folks making what could only be described as the worst Walk of Shame of their lives through a line of over a hundred pairs of extra eyes.
I also learned that people love to describe misery.
I overheard someone complaining that surely the court house could afford a digital display for their meeting schedules, instead of the perfectly serviceable dry erase board they had in the front hall. I heard another gustily scoffing at how, due to the amount of attendees, they were being blocked from seeing the Judge’s seat.
They complained about the heat. About the paper signs on the walls with tears or tape showing. About the lack of chairs. The organization. The length of time waiting. The lack of parking. They complained about being selected, being there, the fact it was winter. It was an endless litany of ways this system was failing them personally. And they weren’t even the defendant!
Some of their points, I wasn’t going to argue with. It was an inconvenience. It did take time out of my day, but I grew more irritated as time went on, not because of the interruption in my week, but due to all the negative perspective seething out from some of these whispered conversations I was overhearing. Because what the Judge first described as he entered the room that day was an ideal I agreed with: that being able to participate in our judicial system is a right and a privilege that all of us should be thankful to contribute to.
Without a jury of our peers, our justice system would crash. We were there to help decide the fate of someone else’s future. An individual who was present during the selection. To that person, this was a momentous day that they very well could have been dreading for months or even years. These people, supposedly chosen at random to ensure a lack of bias, were there to make a judgment call about their deeds and what would happen to them moving forward.
This wasn’t a hotel stay, or a meal at a new restaurant you could give a 2 Star rating to on Yelp. This was our civic duty. And to hear some participants complaining about something so trivial as the quality of the dry-erase board sign, or that their view was blocked made my blood boil.
It also reinforced for me the idea of gratitude and neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the concept that our brain can grow with repeated use of certain neural pathways, a bit like a muscle. The saying goes ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’. Sort of like how practice makes perfect, the more times we think a particular way, the easier it becomes for us to do so in the future.
Imagine you’re trying to grow stronger, or learn a new skill. Do enough push ups, your muscles strength grows. Repeat choreography enough times, and you start to remember the steps. Hear the same song on the radio for a week, and you’ll know it off by heart. Practice enough Tai-Chi, your body begins to remember the movements and you don’t have to try so hard to remember.
Your brain will remember what you take time to repeat and practice.
And this goes for gratitude as well.
The more times you repeat a negative thought, a negative story, a negative belief, the stronger it becomes.
You build up that muscle. You make it easier to remember. It starts becoming second nature.
So imagine one of my fellow jury selection ‘friends’, especially the grumpy ones, started out the day by going through the same process I did, but where I spent my time in line reading the information packets, or considering advice I could give to someone, they spent their time complaining to their neighbour in line about the cold wait outside before the doors opened. About the tiny bathrooms. The snail’s pace of the line up.
They then entered the court room and blessedly found a seat beside someone new, and they swapped their views on the journey thus far AGAIN, tacking on their thoughts about the abysmal organization, the lack of chairs, and now their blocked view of the bench.
Maybe they didn’t get selected, or maybe they did, but you can imagine when they got home that night, or to work the next day, the story would be rolled out again to each new person who dared to ask ‘How are you?’ and the story would be repeated from top to bottom. Rehashed and added to, along with all the other tidbits about their miserable drive home and how inconvenient it was to take time away.
Now – I’m not saying that they’re wrong. But what is getting stronger for them? What story are they reinforcing? A positive story about the benefits of our court system, or a never-ending list of all the tiny little complaints that actually were fairly trivial to begin with? Are they reinforcing a pattern of spotting and dwelling on positive, or negative events in their life?
Are you feeling a little called out right now? Because I am amazingly guilty of this too. Don’t worry. We all do this. We repeat our tales of woe to seek validation. Empathy, sympathy, support. We want someone to say ‘Wow, that sounds awful! Your feelings are real and valid and you are allowed to feel like that because I agree with your assessment of the situation!’
This is actually healthy for us. But it can also just enable us to keep in a negative mindset and once you build up that muscle, it starts getting easier to use it. You might find yourself always seeing the negatives. The worst case scenarios. All the criticisms. You might only see negative traits in yourself, because your brain is now trained to find that easier than listing positives. You might even start deflecting compliments, because your brain is so used to the negative, it feels uncomfortable to even CONSIDER a positive, especially about yourself.
If you didn’t feel triggered earlier, you should now.
So what can we do about? Once we notice that maybe we all have a bit of a pattern of ‘Spot the Bad Stuff’, how do we undo that?
Easy. With gratitude.
1. Replace Negative with a Positive
The first step to building up those new, more positive neural pathways is to notice ourselves being stuck in the negative. Once we notice, and name the habit, we can start changing it.
Hear yourself repeating the same complaints throughout the day? Pause. Purposefully stop that line of conversation and instead list one small simple thing that went well, or even felt neutral! Most people in a conversation are eager to follow the flow – it’s a social cue built into our nature – so don’t stress that others may find it jarring. Likely they will follow suit and start listing a positive as well and that will only make it easier for you.
Even setting aside time daily to write out a list of 2-3 things you are grateful for, or things that made you smile that day can train us to start watching throughout our lives for these little moments of positivity. Ending and starting the day this way sets a whole different tone and trying this consistently for a week or more might shock you with how effective it can be in improving your overall outlook. There are plenty of Gratitude Journals available for purchase that even give you helpful prompts and questions to answer if you’re struggling to find your own.
Be kind to yourself: some of us have been thinking one way for a long time. Remember that this will take practice and it’s normal to keep thinking negatively at first. Don’t be shocked if this feels harder than it sounds and takes some time to feel more natural.
2. Be Thankful
Many of us are guilty of saying Sorry all of the time – and although this seems innocent (and Canadian), it actually reinforces that we have something to apologize for! Every casual Sorry that we mutter is building those pathways to keep us doing the same thing again and again. So instead of apologizing, try saying Thank you!
“I’m sorry I’m late” becomes “Thank you for waiting for me”.
“I’m sorry for crying” becomes “Thank you for supporting me”.
Not only does it help us break a nasty habit of endlessly saying Sorry for things we maybe don’t need to, but it has a double benefit of making others feel appreciated. And you start looking for the positive side of the conversation too. We become mindful of how we might be grateful for having good friends, instead of being ashamed for getting tearful.
3. Keep in Touch
Sometimes it’s hard to remember to keep a positive view of things and to be grateful, but with enough practice it can become second nature. To get started, some of us need a bit of cueing. Consider using Touch Points as your first step into gratitude.
Once or twice a day, especially when you physically touch an object or even person in your life, take a moment to recognize and list all the ways this item positively influences your life. Maybe it’s your phone, maybe it’s your car, or the light switch on the wall (or for me, the coffee pot). Maybe it’s a friend. Let that touch signal a moment to reflect and be grateful for the ways this object, or person enriches your life or makes things easier.
Your phone keeps you connected. Your car gives you freedom. Your lights keep your home bright. You friend is always there for you.
And coffee makes everything possible.
This can start you on the path of noticing, and this may help you feel more grateful for what you have. Once you start building up that brain muscle towards gratitude, it might actually help you become more positive and see the bright side in other situations.
It might even make Jury Duty seem like an adventure, instead of a stress.
What ways do you try to stay grateful in your life? How has gratitude helped you turn a negative into a positive? Feel free to share your thoughts and stories with us!