I have a complex relationship with gratitude. I’ve struggled all week with the idea of writing a post about gratitude today for Thanksgiving, a topic that seems nearly obligatory on this day. I am resistant because the topic tends to be overdone this time of year and ignored for much of the rest of the year, and because it is so often prescribed with a helping of guilt on the side for not being more grateful. But it is a concept that has been much on my mind of late for various reasons, so I will add my thoughts to the overwhelm of the day.
So why do I have such a complex relationship with gratitude?
On the one hand, I believe that the ability to express genuine gratitude for the abundance in our lives not only brings greater joy, but it often increases the blessings we receive because gratitude opens us to receiving. In fact, in a card reading I was doing this morning, the card I drew contained the following quote:
“Be open to receive, as you’ve worked hard and have given so much. Allow the universe to give a little back to you, for there has to be an even exchange of giving and receiving in order to prime the pump of gratitude and reinforce the law of attraction.” ~John Holland, in The Psychic Tarot Oracle Cards Guidebook
This made the connection for me between gratitude and being open to receive in a way I hadn’t heard before. I’ve tended to think of expressing gratitude as an obligation created from receiving rather than thinking of receiving as a means of expanding my ability to experience gratitude. The quote goes on to mention that this also reinforces the law of attraction that brings more good things into our lives.
On the other hand, as Oriah Mountain Dreamer pointed out in her Taking the “Should” out of Giving Thanks post yesterday, we tend to tie a strong sense of should, of obligation, of requirement to the expression of gratitude in our culture. We all have had the experience of feeling obligated to express gratitude for a gift that we didn’t really want. We also all know the feeling of being told that we should be grateful for things in our lives when what we really need is the chance to express the sense of loss or pain we are feeling at not being or having what we truly need or desire. (You know, the whole “you should be grateful to have a job at all in this economy” speech you get when you complain that the stress level or demands of a current job are slowly killing you.) As someone who has faced a good deal of that kind of sentiment from others as I’ve weathered these last few months of change, it tends to sometimes give the idea of gratitude a bit of a sour taste.
True gratitude is something that flows from the soul. Trying to force myself to feel grateful for something that I don’t truly feel grateful for is not gratitude. It’s denial of my true feelings, and it’s manipulation by others to try to force something on me as a means of circumventing their own discomfort with my pain or complaints.
This is not to say that I can’t use strategies to encourage gratitude in my life—in fact, I’ve been posting something I’m grateful for every day as my status update in Facebook, and this has been a very positive (though sometimes challenging) experience for me. But committing to focusing on gratitude is different from requiring myself to be grateful for specific things or situations for which I am not currently grateful. The former is a means of committing to a practice that encourages personal growth; the latter is a means of bludgeoning myself and my feelings by using cultural expectations about what I should be grateful for as the weapon against my authentic Self. One is life-giving. The other brings death. Unfortunately, they are not always easy to tell apart at first glance because they both focus on gratitude.
As I continue to find new ways of being and new practices to encourage and enrich my life, I want healthy gratitude to be a part of that. Several years ago, I created a set of gratitude beads—a string of 101 beads—that I used every day to name 101 unique things for which I was grateful. I was in one of my more profound suicidal depressions at the time, and although the practice was challenging, I believe it saved my life by helping to re-focus my attention and my energy on finding things worth living for. Elie Wiesel once said “No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night.” I believe that he is right. Having walked through dark times has given me a greater ability to appreciate, and be grateful for, the good things in life. It also makes me more aware of the things in life that are harmful to me because I know the depths to which I can plunge when I am not allowed to be true to myself and my needs.
Part of my commitment to healthy gratitude also means refusing to force myself to express gratitude for those things that I am not grateful for in order to assuage my own guilt or to make anyone else more comfortable. This doesn’t mean that I intend to start being rude to others. In most social situations, I can still find something to be genuinely grateful for that I can express in socially acceptable ways. For example, I can be grateful that someone thought of me in purchasing a gift even if the gift is not one I am grateful for. I am grateful for the paycheck I receive even if I am not currently grateful for the job I have. It may be challenging at times to find ways to respect the manners that society expects of us while respecting our own truth, but I think that it is possible in most situations with a little effort.
I want gratitude to become a way of life for me, but I want it to be authentic gratitude that springs from my soul, not something imposed upon me. This is one of those things I am ready to do differently to produce different outcomes in my life. Will you join me?