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The power of gratitude

By Heather Bren on Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sketch alongside tattoo

Have you ever stepped into the presence of someone who exudes joy? How did you feel? Did you leave wondering what you're missing in your own spiritual journey and why that joy eludes you? If that's you, you're not alone. For many, the holidays bring the opposite, as we are reminded of loved ones lost, or as we wrestle with loneliness. As we come into Thanksgiving, there's a powerful message - more of a quiet movement - resonating in the hearts and minds of UNW art students; one that originated with a cancer victim, took hold of her friend (and UNW Art professor) Heather Bren, and ended up embedded in a curriculum that is now shaping the hearts and minds of creative students willing to listen and learn. What is this movement? The active practice of gratitude. While it may sound a little naive, its magnitude and power is felt most deeply in times of adversity.

It it not happy people who are thankful; it's thankful people who are happy!!

8 years ago, UNW Art professor, Heather Bren, lost a close friend to cancer. Monica was one of those people with a joy and love for life that is purely contagious. Monica's life and testimony, and the grace, dignity and joy with which she faced her death, made an indelible mark on Heather's heart. She smiled broadly as she spoke of her friend, "The first two things she did when she learned she needed to have brain surgery were to book tickets to Las Vegas with her husband and get clearance from the doctor to get a tattoo!" What was the tattoo? "Picture Walmart's yellow Smiley face, but tacky!" This smiley face had long eyelashes, one eye winking, and a tongue protruding from a smiling mouth. What struck Heather was not the tattoo itself, but where her friend chose to put it. "She tattooed it on her foot, facing her, so that as she lay in bed, this smiley face would be winking up at her."

"We get so overwhelmed by the small annoyances of life instead of coming into the day with a spirit of surrender and gratitude - with eyes to see what God has provided!"

One day, while talking to Monica, Heather found herself complaining about her commute, and was struck with the thought. "Here is this woman, facing death – preparing her family for life without her, and I'm complaining about traffic! This was a woman who lived her life with gratitude and generosity and brought dignity and beauty to her death." Awareness of the sharp contrast between their attitudes changed the trajectory of Heather's spiritual walk, and from that day, Heather decided to actively practice gratitude as part of her daily routine, "We get so overwhelmed by the small annoyances of life instead of coming into the day with a spirit of surrender and gratitude - with eyes to see what God has provided!"

Then Heather did two things; she had a yellow dot tattooed on the inside of her wrist to forever remind her of her friend and the concepts of gratitude and generosity, and started a Pinterest board called Gratitude and Generosity, posting inspirational quotes, thoughts, images – anything that would direct thought or conversation around these concepts. Then she built those same spiritual truths into her art curriculum in a way that encouraged students to look at their chosen field through a biblical lens!

Artists express what they see and feel as they process the world around them, often making the hearts and minds of creative students a battlefield of light versus darkness. Knowing this, Heather takes 5 minutes from each of her Spring semester classes and focuses on the subject of gratitude. She places one item from her Pinterest board on screen and begins a dialog with her students about it. "One senior student of mine got up one day and said she was upset because her earbuds broke – this was her fourth pair. She liked to listen to specific music on the way to class, but couldn't now. But then she shared that, instead, she listened to the rain on the way to class, and expressed gratitude for her broken earbuds because it allowed her this experience." Other students have come back to her and shared that this simple exercise was the beginning of healing in their lives – some of whom were close to suicide.

Perhaps even more poignantly, as it pertains to the role of artists in shaping and directing the thoughts of our culture, Heather has seen creativity open up in her students over the years, as they've cultivated a spirit of gratitude – as if the expression of gratitude unlocks a true God-given creativity to express more freely.

So as we come into Thanksgiving, what you are you grateful for? Is your glass half full or half empty? Can you cultivate the practice of gratitude daily in your own life and teach those around you to do the same? You might just be surprised at how 5 minutes of focused attention can change your life and the lives of those around you!

We asked Heather what she would say to people as they come into Thanksgiving. Her response?

sculpture from Heather Bren's Pinterest board dedicated to gratitude
gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

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