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Journal Habit Makes Every Day a Day of Thanksgiving for a Grateful Heart

Gary Umhoefer has a grateful heart. At some point during each day, he picks up a small, simple notebook he purchased at an office store and turns to the page with that day’s date. There, he’ll see a name – or perhaps two, and sometimes a picture, as well – and call its owner to mind, also reciting a particular Jesuit prayer.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily struggles of life and I just had a strong desire to remember how I’ve been blessed,” says Umhoefer, human resources director at St. Norbert College and father of Greg ’13. “In our mad dashing around, I wanted to think more about where God has interacted with me through the people in my life.”

People noted in the journal could be lifelong friends, family members or someone Umhoefer doesn’t even know, but who have had an impact on his life. One entry simply says “man in Atlanta.” “It was someone I saw on the sidewalk while there for a conference and he gave me such a genuine smile that made my day,” Umhoefer says. “It’s all about recognizing the wonders around us and being grateful for what God gives us each and every day.”

People touch each other’s lives in ways they don’t realize, Umhoefer says. “It all goes back to that simple commandment: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ ” He adds, “I’m sure some of these people probably aren’t thinking about me, but I just really want to remember the different ways people have touched my life. When I look at a particular date and see a name, I think about what they have meant to me.”

Umhoefer began his gratitude journal in 2011. At first, he thought it might be a challenge to find 365 people, but he was wrong. Once he got started, he realized just how much he’d been blessed:

“If I know the person’s birthday, I’ll write down their name on that day or, if I don’t, I may write the name down on a date where we had an interaction. Or sometimes I just write it down anywhere.”

Umhoefer’s gratitude journal is a bit different from others where people are invited to write down two or three things they are grateful for every day. By focusing on a person and offering up a blessing, Umhoefer’s journal has become a form of prayer.

When Umhoefer first started his habit, he wrote at the front of the journal a prayer he learned while attending a retreat. Next, he wrote two dates down on every page. Umhoefer tries to encourage other people to pick up his idea of a gratitude journal and take a moment daily to just say thanks for the people God has brought into their lives. He even gave a Last Lecture in 2012 about his prayerful practices as part of the college’s weekly Sacred Hour.

“It literally takes 30 seconds a day and has been such a blessing. I look up what the names are that day and I say the prayer – I know it by heart – and I’m done in less than a minute,” he says. “It’s all about being present to God’s presence in our lives.”

By the way, the gratitude journal isn’t the only little book Umhoefer holds dear. He has a second journal where he records words of wisdom and gratitude. “If I hear something I like, I write it down,” Umhoefer says. “Again, these aren’t fancy, special journals. Any notebook will do.”

Umhoefer enjoys bringing joy into other people’s lives. For example, he’ll walk around campus with a bucket of candy and hand pieces out to students and faculty members. “It’s the little touches that we give each other that really matter,” Umhoefer says. 

As people touch Umhoefer’s life, he adds them to his journal. “There’s plenty of room. I’ll never be able to fill it up,” he says. “There’s no limit to how many people I can be grateful for. It’s all about gratitude and having hope.”

Nov. 4, 2014