Gratitude For It All
It’s November, which means we’re gearing up for Thanksgiving-inspired gratitude platitudes. When I finally find my magic wand, so help me the first thing I’m going to do (after banning any mention of Pumpkin Spice anything before October 1st), is to restore some dignity to the concept of gratitude, which we in the digital age have watered down until it is almost impotent as a tool for transformation.
And oh by the way, get ready, My magic wand gives me powers more appropriate to what I’d call a rather whimsical Supreme Overlord. The threat of having one’s skin permanently dyed neon pink will be a very successful deterrent for anyone thinking of using #blessed in November, don’t you think? Or ever again. Ever.
Let’s go scorched earth on #blessed and #tooblessedtobestressed, shall we?
Back in the 1980’s, gratitude practice gained in popularity as a sort of metaphysical vehicle for the concept that “what we are grateful for increases”. The idea was that whatever we wanted more of, we should affirm gratitude for. The good part of this is that it helped people focus on pieces of our lives that no matter how regular or small, were part of a daily fabric of goodness unfolding in real time.
The problem, however, is the “more” part. Using gratitude as a tool to manifest good that’s always increasing ironically by default puts the focus on what’s not. It sets up a gap between what is and what will be, which is the exact opposite of appreciating what’s happening in the present. It’s also similarly problematic to a lot of New Age thinking, implying we’re to blame for not being good enough manifesters if we are trying to create better lives but not experiencing success.
Our lives and the lessons we’re here to learn deserve much more from us.
What is the real purpose of a gratitude practice, then? Why do it at all? Isn’t it supposed to be a good thing that helps connects us to our spirituality?
Yes. It absolutely is. However, real gratitude is not a gimmick. It’s not a distraction from real life and it sure isn’t forced positivity or denial.
If we practice gratitude because we think we’re going to get something out of it, or if we only claim gratitude for the stuff off the top (like vacations, achievements, our kids’ achievements, our new possessions, our looks, our love life, or our fitness), we can unknowingly play into the #blessed phenomenon. It’s a trap to only recognize the plusses in our lives. When we buy into publicly sharing pictures of what makes our lives pretty, we’re less involved in the practice of gratitude and more likely objectifying ourselves and our lives.
I call this photogenic gratitude. And it hurts more than it helps.
Before I go any further I would like to point out that all gratitude work is good work. Photogenic gratitude may be easier, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s actually easy. Our culture is thoroughly hamstrung in the area of joy. We put limits on how happy we’re allowed to be all the time. It is extremely difficult to claim joy in this joint let alone express it, so much so that we’re more prone to complain. Learning to surf the silver lining is a worldview that doesn’t come easily (I’m looking at you, Eyore) and for that reason alone being grateful for the good stuff is indeed a powerful tool that can change our entire lives. We shouldn’t neglect it. Many of us have to push ourselves to find things to be grateful for on a particularly hard day (as if a day can only be good or bad and nothing else), and when we’re in the midst of crisis we especially forbid ourselves to find any joy or humor whatsoever in our experience. Our culture is so committed to the negative thinking born out of fear that finding the positive in anything we’re experiencing seems naive. So on this point, yes, go ahead and knock yourself out and claim all the #blessed you want.
But where positivity fails us is when it excludes real feelings about real life.
What if we could practice gratitude for all of our lives? For everything. The mess, the struggle, the injustice, the discomfort, the pain? What would it take to be able to say we’re grateful for every single moment of every single day, even on the days when most of those moments feel. Like. Shit.
For starters, it would require us to release the limiting belief that what our lives look like is how they actually are.
It would require us to accept that our whole lives require a deep reverence from us, not just the parts that make us feel good or look good to others.
It would force us to grapple with the truth that no one part of our life has any more potential to transform us than any other, and that living a full life means we will move through distinctly difficult chapters as well as tremendously happy and tranquil ones.
It might be helpful to know that being grateful and feeling grateful aren’t necessarily the same thing. Practicing gratitude for all of it means occasionally we really have to practice. It takes some muscle to affirm gratefulness when we’re not feeling it. Honesty is your best bet in those times. “I don’t know why the hell I have to deal with this, but I trust my life is unfolding exactly the way it is supposed to for my highest good”. Or if you prefer, use a personal favorite of mine– “Hey Universe, what the fuck?”
So, do you think you could do it?
Could you be grateful for your losses? For the loss of loved ones (pets too) through death or illness? For the ending of partnerships, friendships, and the ending of the stages of our own lives?
Could you be inspired to be grateful for your body, just as it is? Its looks, its sensitivities, quirks, weaknesses, the challenge of chronic illness or injuries, or for one that is differently-abled?
Could we have gratitude for our emotions? For the complex journeys we walk to understand our genders, our sexuality, for the long arc of learning about who we are in this world and what we want to contribute?
Could we be grateful for our failures and disappointments?
What about feeling grateful for the mountains of annoyances that pile up in our daily lives? The noise, the thrash, the horrible drivers in our way, the rudeness, the self-centeredness and the greed of some of our fellow humans?
Could we even be grateful for the trauma we’ve suffered at the hands of some of them?
I think it’s possible. I even think it’s possible to be grateful for those things while striving to change and improve ourselves and our world. I think being willing to be grateful for all of it is a way of being generous with ourselves and others. Putting conditions on what we’re grateful for limits us. When we avoid expressing thanks for the dark, sorrowful, confusing, or worrisome parts of our experience what we’re really saying is, “I don’t have the self-acceptance to feel every inch of this difficulty, and I don’t believe I will transcend it”. When we refuse to affirm the divine all around us, we resist the very situations that teach us the most about love. Buried deep into the parts of life that you would prefer not to be experiencing are the keys to your transformation.
One last thing. Practicing gratitude does not require you to be cheerful about it (even if it has a cheering effect). Just be sincere. Believe me, I have been accused of being a pollyanna so many times in my life I sometimes think I practice gratitude with a sarcastic edge just to try and establish some street cred on the topic. Remember that an honest gratitude practice involves real feelings and real life. You are allowed to feel every inch of your feelings, reach out, get support, all at the same time that you are claiming gratitude for whatever fucking asshole has fucked up your fucking day.
I promise the Universe will find a magical way to let you know it hasn’t forgotten about you. You may find that you naturally begin to see the positive in every situation in which you’re being stretched. But do not lie about what is unacceptable to you.
Here is my real gratitude list for today:
~I am grateful for being a solo single parent even if most days I feel like all I’m doing is failing at it. My sons are astonishing humans who have honored me by choosing me to be their mother. They have brought the lessons of self-acceptance and faith deeper into my heart.
~I am grateful for the increasingly short, dark days that are clearly trying to break me this year. I’ll have to get back to you on this one ;). Maybe in late January.
~I am grateful for my body, which has been resilient through breast cancer, a hip replacement, and now has launched me headlong into perimenopause. I am getting to know that middle-aged Jewish lady in the mirror and learning to be kind to her.
~I am grateful for the countless assholes who drive through the crosswalks in my town without any regard for pedestrians. I am learning to focus on the drivers who do stop. I am actually experiencing true delight now when someone stops instead of rage when most of them don’t.
~I could write an entire list about my amazing boyfriend, but that’s for another time. I’ll just say this: he’s ridiculously good at being my boyfriend, and makes me ridiculously happy.
~I am grateful for love, and how abundantly it shows up in my life every day, challenging me to let it all the way in. It just never stops coming at me. Universe, you are so generous.
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