I just wrote a little piece for a health blog about how wallowing in gratitude–not the once-a-year-over-turkey variety, but the count-your-blessings-for-the-little-things every day type of exercise–can have a positive impact on your health. And I wholly believe that is true. Even if it doesn’t help my health at that moment, it reminds me that most of what’s important to me, I already have.
But here’s what I’m not down with, and haven’t been since I became a Formerly: The idea that you have to be grateful for what you have, even when it sucks sucks SUCKS, simply because it could be worse.
Like many a blog post, this reminder was spurred by a friend’s Facebook status update. She wrote something to the effect that she’ll be psyched when this year is over. She has had myriad crap events take place in 2009–lots of health drama, a relative passing away, and other stuff. She’s hoping for a fresh start, much in the same way half the universe vows to start their diets January 1. A friend of hers posted this comment:
“I ask you to have some perspective considering how blessed we are relative to those who aren’t able to usher the new year in. I too had a challenging year and oftentimes wish it were over, however, I am grateful to even be able to send this message to you in light of the fact that there are those who don’t even have the capacity to do so, and those who didn’t make it to today!”
In other words, “Look on the bright side: You could be dead.”
WTF? Why is it that some (obviously well-meaning) people seem to think that if you complain even about things that legitimately stink, or wish that time would hurry up and heal your wounds, that you are not grateful for the good in your life, and that you have a bad attitude? Is relentless positivity the only way to show that you recognize that there is much joy in the world? Why can’t you be grateful for life in general, but still express frustration or unhappiness with the shitty parts? Why is one person’s misery necessarily measured against all the possible misery in the world? Why is it not OK to feel two things at the same time?
When I was a kid, that was most definitely not OK, particularly if one of those feelings was an uncharitable one. My older brother is autistic, and as a kid, I was embarrassed by him, put out by him, and generally speaking stretched to the limit in my patience with him. I also loved him, did right by him, and tried to include him in my life to the extent he and I could handle it. In a single instant, I wanted to protect him and I wanted him to evaporate. But if I expressed any of my perfectly human resentmentsÂ about him, I was told that it wasn’t fair to feel as I felt, because he couldn’t help being the way he was. I grew up thinking that feelings were something you could control. If you were a good enough person, you’d never feel badly toward someone who couldn’t be otherwise.
Guess who wasn’t that good a person? Every time I had a negative feeling, about him or any other aspect of my life, I told myself that it was wrong of me to feel that way, especially because of all my good fortune relative to my brother. And yet I still felt rotten sometimes, because, well, some things were rotten, even if they weren’t, generally speaking, as rotten for me as they were for him. Whenever I felt bad, I felt hateful. Then I started to eat, and not eat, and eat a lot, and subsequently was inducted into the Bulimia Hall of Fame.
You know what’s rotten? Being autistic. You know what else is rotten? Having a brother who is, or being a parent to someone who is. I’m not saying there aren’t rewards deeply embedded in caring for someone with a severe disability, but the sad fact of my brother’s condition should have been the hard part, not the feelings we all had about it. You’d have to be a living saint to feel constantly grateful for having been dealt a seriously crummy hand of cards.
Hence this rant. Now I feel I must fight the all-gratitude all-the-time types like the woman who commented on my friend’s desire for the year to be over. To me, you can’t be truly grateful unless you also acknowledge the PURE SUCKITUDE of some aspects of life. Slogging through the negative feelings can lead to perspective, oftentimes positive perspective. You can’t see the world clearly if you don’t let yourself feel what you feel.
So here’s a few items off my Thanksgiving list, the good, the bad, and the uncharitable:
I’m grateful for (in no particular order) my husband, my kids, my friends from high school, my friends from college, the friends I inherited in various divorces, my work friends, my book editor, my agent, and my parents and my husband’s family, which is mine now, too. I’m grateful for the guy in the newsstand at my office who knows how I take my coffee, and grateful for the bus driver who let me on despite the fact that I didn’t have enough change. She was a true human being.
I am thankful to have had my stepfather in my life for the 23 years he was married to my mom. I am NOT thankful that he died too young two weeks ago, bewildered and sad and frustrated with so much left to do. I am NOT thankful that my mom and his children are bereft. I am not willing to say “at least” I had a loving stepfather, because some others do not and so I should not be sad that he died. That makes no sense to me.
I am, as I said, thankful that I have such wonderful children. I am not thankful when they compete for my attention to the extent that I feel as if I’m being torn in two and am never enough. Am I thankful that I have children to fight over me? Sure, but I still wish they’d stop.
I could go on, but wow, I’ve gone on long enough. What do you think about all of this? I obviously come from a specific set of life experiences, for which I am, dare I say?… grateful. What about you? How did you come to learn about gratitude and what are you and, as important, are you NOT grateful for these days?