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I checked into my first rehab program on May 14, 2008. I barely recognize the person I was before that date. I spent money with abandon, fraternized with a dangerous crowd and even crashed a few cars. I didn’t feel good about the life I was living, but I didn’t know how to change.
The day before I was scheduled to start rehab, I went on a bender. I hopped on the plane drunk and I landed at a Utah airport hungover before staying at a local motel until I checked into the program the following morning.
Similar to the intake process in jail, where I’d been a few times before then, they stripped me down to my skivvies and confiscated all my material possessions. From there, they gave me the most basic necessities, then they loaded me into a car alongside all my new gear and we drove close to one hundred miles into the Manti-La Sal National Forest, where I joined the other people who were already in the program. Our sole objective was to use topographical maps to get from point A to point B to point C to point D — and survive. Oh, and spill our guts to the counselors along the way.
We received food drops on Tuesdays and Saturdays, which meant new seasoning packets, dry rice and beans, brown sugar, Spam and — what quickly became my favorite item — peanut butter.
At the time, peanut butter was all I had to look forward to. I’d scoop a spoonful from the jar and top it with brown sugar, savoring every bite. I even carved a spoon out of a Ponderosa pine branch and tucked a serving into my cheek just before I fell asleep. That it only came on Saturdays made it even more of a treat. There I was in the most pivotal two months of my life, and all I cared about was peanut butter. Yes, I’d made a good habit of sitting by the campfire at night with the others and dreaming about what life on the outside would look like. But those were just dreams. Peanut butter was real. I could taste it, sleep with it, sniff it and savor it. All I had to do was appreciate it and go slow so that it would last until the next ration.
Pretty soon, I started developing gratitude for this peanut butter. With all the turmoil happening in my life, I was grateful for the true simplicity of this newfound ritual. It’s what got me through those arduous first two (of many) months in rehab. It gave me a sense of hope and optimism — even pride and self-confidence in that I could set the small goal of making it last and celebrate peanut butter’s arrival every Saturday. It made me believe that I could tackle bigger goals too.
More importantly, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a whole group of other people there with whom I could reflect on all I’d been through, everything my experiences had taught me and the many benefits that lay ahead if I could get myself together. I talked to them about the big stuff — and about the peanut butter too.
Thankfully, you don’t need to go to rehab to learn to appreciate the power of gratitude rituals. You may be more familiar with the process than you think. You may have grown up with religious rituals that connect you to your faith or cultural rituals passed down from ancestors who connect you to your heritage. Even rituals around dressing up in your favorite team’s gear and going to the game count in my book.
Those experiences can create a deep affinity between the people who share them. But too often they are too few and far apart — events that we count down to on the calendar that are not an integral part of our daily lives. Instead, the daily rituals many of us tend to adopt revolve around fueling up with caffeine and going to work, and then winding down after work with the latest show (and likely some alcohol). Instead of enjoying those rituals with others, we grab a coffee from the drive-through and finish a bottle of wine over the latest bingeable show on Netflix.
But building those rituals pro-socially is worth the effort. It doesn’t just connect you to the people who share your identity; it cultivates deep and meaningful relationships with people who come from all walks of life. And we can start just as small as I did with my peanut butter — that’s what rituals are all about. Take a friend or colleague with you on your daily coffee run. Tell them why you’re glad they’re in your life. Do it early and often.
• Reflection: Similar to my experience with peanut butter, has there been a turning point in your life when a ritual helped you through something difficult? As a creative, what rituals do you perform when doing your best work?
• Reflection: What is one ritual of solitude you have in your life right now? What would it look like to share that ritual with others?
• Action: Make a list of the daily rituals at work or in your personal life that you’ve not given enough credit or thanks to. Give gratitude to the simplicity of their nature.
We can all connect through a desire to show and share gratitude. Our lives will be better for it — and the more we do it, the better they’ll be.