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What’s your gratitude attitude?

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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 resentments  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?

Photo by Teddy Llovet CC

13 Responses to “What’s your gratitude attitude?”

  1. Marlene says:

    I often see people who simply cannot be with other people’s upset – so they try to change it, ignore it, “cheer them up” out of it, and generally try to negate what’s going on with the other person. People just don’t seem able to LISTEN and have empathy. DON’T TRY TO CHANGE IT, for God’s sake! It is what it is… just BE with them; don’t try to make it any different. Keep doing that and people will stop talking to you…

    Thank you for writing this – I get so frustrated when I see people comment like that on FB! Like my feelings aren’t valid? Let me just have my feelings!

  2. 20 years ago, when I was in sales training, my managers preached about having an “attitude of gratitude.” But then they suggested we compare ourselves to the richest, most successful business people, in order to know where we stood in comparison.

    3 years ago, when I embraced Islam, I read that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that people should constantly compare themselves to those less fortunate. That sounds more like “gratitude” to me. And I do feel healthier than I did when I was working 16-hour days trying to make sales.

    But I think sometimes we should just be thankful for our Constitutional right to bitch and complain about the times when life sucks…because it’s just too damn unhealthy to bottle it all in!

  3. Bárbara A. Herrnsdorf says:

    First of all, that picture of they turkeys is great! They really are beautiful birds, and now, I feel guilty that we ate them! Hmmmm….

    Well, hmmmm (again)…I do understand exactly what you are saying. The futility in trying to ignore or deny feelings is just that, and exercise in futility. I think what is wrong these days is that we do try to deny our feelings. Feelings are the first step, in my opinion, in knowing what we are experiencing. Once we can ‘check-in’ and truthfully acknowledge our feelings, then, and only then, can we decide how we would like and hope to proceed. If we aren’t even honest about how we feel, how can we ever know which way to proceed? That is when, hopefully, a process will begin and depending on the situation, the process could be almost begun and completed in mere minutes, and other things, well, they can be a continuous process that takes a lifetime.

    For example, if we feel angry because a certain familial member constantly disregards our feelings, well, knowing we feel angry, and knowing why we are angry, and towards whom our anger is directed, lets us be clear as to what is happening. Once we know what is happening, and we are clear, we can decide how we would like to handle/remedy the situation. Perhaps it is a class on assertiveness, perhaps it is withdrawing somewhat from contact at certain times, maybe it is writing a heartfelt letter…but, knowing how we feel is so important. Then, if we like, and we do not wish to wallow in feelings that bring us down but wish to also acknowledge some other aspects of the situation or ourselves, or life, if we so chose, to then not get too stuck in negativity, and we want to, we can think about the positive aspects so we do feel grateful, in spite of the other things, NOT INSTEAD OF! For instance, being thankful to have enough money to be able to take an assertiveness class or finally summoning the courage we always knew we had to write that long overdue letter etc. The two things ‘feelings’ (even negative ones) and ‘gratitude’ can co-exist. In fact, in my humble opinion, that is the healthiest way for us to live: acknowledge our real feelings truthfully, then, give them some perspective, and decide how we’d like to proceed and what we’d like to focus on.

    Does this make any sense?

    I think there are soooo many things in my life that I would NEVER, EVER, EVER like to do over again, and if someone, as when playing children’s games called a ‘do-over’ I would wail in protest because those experiences did SUCK, A LOT, however, at this point, I am grateful for having lived through them all, because they have helped me see people in a very real, honest way that I think best eclipses the true beauty in humanity before all the superfluous dressings are applied that muck the raw beauty up. I also know VERY well, that I feel this way today because I allowed myself to be honest about how I felt, and why, and then allowed myself the room to figure out what to do. I had to decide how to handle the feelings I had. I had to decide what I really wanted, or wanted to change or wanted to happen. Once I started to think about that, and decide ‘how’ and ‘when’ etc., I could then determine if I did feel any aspect or level of gratitude too, and if so, why. That part is somewhat important too, because all our lives, we do have good and bad in our lives. We do tend, however, to get stuck in one part or another and have a somewhat skewed version of our own truth when this happens. This is why, if we are feeling glum, we can say, hey, I feel glum but, at a certain point, we have to also know, that the glum feeling we are having is not the entirety of our existence. We just happen to be focused on it in the moment. So, sometimes, we have to bring the perspective back to actual reality. For example, I am truly sad that I do not have a family to share holidays. After realizing that I feel that way, I sat with it, for some time, and know that in this situation, there is simply nothing I can do. It is what it is and it is beyond my control, even as sad as it is and no matter how sad I feel about it at times. But, the truth is, if I were to allow myself to let my focus remain only on that one aspect of my life and my feelings, I would not see things in the proper perspective. No, a husband nor friends can replace family since they are not interchangeable, but, I am truly glad and happy that I have a loving husband who has good friends we can invite over and celebrate with! You know what I mean? I had to decide which way I hoped to steer my ship and do my part to get it there, and pray to God about the parts that were out of my control…each and every part…it is all a process that leads us to the next, and the next.

    Losing your step-father is a truly sad, loss filled, heart wrenching experience and yes, you should say that it is and that is how you feel. It is true because you feel it. You also know that you have so many things that you are also simultaneously grateful, like your children, husband etc. which is why you are not so grief struck that you cannot exist at all nor be a mother your children. You can feel sad, and grateful at the same time. You can decide what to do about your feelings, like write your blog, talk to friends, be honest about your feelings, ask people to reply to your blog etc. And all of this, well, it is the process. It is what you are choosing to do because you have acknowledged your feelings. People who want to deny feelings or forcefully inject gratitude before it has been properly cultivated are the true losers. Seems to me, you are, and have been, on the exact right track…Cheers! Eventually, after the process runs its course, then, there will be even more things to be grateful for…All of these are part of our life. I feel very special to read your ‘stuff’ and am glad you are so open and honest with us!

    I hope you, or someone will understand, and may find these ramblings from a humble Queens girl, useful.

  4. Carey says:

    Because I tend to see the negative in everything, I decided that my blog would be one of gratitude. And I do feel better: more energy and happier. It makes me see the small things in my day that are positive: anything from my son not throwing sand on the playground to my stepfather making it through surgery. It works for me.

    I agree with you that gratitude isn’t necessary being glad that your life is as it is and not worse (or the life of someone less fortunate. BTW, who is to say that your life is better than others?) I also believe that we should allow people to feel what they feel and not try to tell them differently. Being grateful, feelings and, even, life are personal endeavors. Who are we (the Internet talking heads) to tell people how to proceed?

    Great post. Thank you for writing it.

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by formerlyhot, Carey Rossi. Carey Rossi said: RT @formerlyhot: The limits of gratitude. http://www.formerlyhot.com/2009/11/whats-your-gratitude-attitude/ [...]

  6. Tanya M. says:

    Thanks so much for this article. For me it’s like when i cry and someone will try to stop me and I tell them NO – Let me cry, it makes me feel better and cleanses me! Marlene is so right people are a bit low on empathy forgeting where they came from. Anyho, Thanks again!

  7. Delia Lloyd says:

    Thanks for this, Stephanie. I grew up with a father who always told me that I was *lucky* for any number of things. And I was, vs. lots of other people out there, several of whom I was related to. But what I learned was that I wasn’t allowed to have any problems. That’s not a good message for a child to internalize, and it invariably comes out in an eating disorder, as in your case, or excessive anxiety or just a ton of unexpressed anger 30 years later when you realize how much you’ve kept inside all these years. So I *totally* totally get this post, including the part about expressing what you’re *not* thankful for, which (in my case) includes not being thankful that my beloved father also passed away this past year…

    Delia Lloyd
    http://www.realdelia.com

  8. Sara says:

    Fantastic post! This really rang a lot of bells for me.

    A favorite quote of mine is by Elizabeth Taylor, “The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they’re going to have some pretty annoying virtues.”

    AMEN!

    I once had a mother in law who, whenever I expressed any minute lack of confidence, would pour on the compliments to “build me up”. If I had a simple lament that my pie might not be a yummy as I wanted, she would throw embarrassingly over the top compliment to “help” my self esteem. If I made a passing comment about someone who annoyed me, she would “show” me how to be a gracious person by reaching out for prayer. I was a young and somewhat insecure bride. I let her make me worse. By the time I divorced her son I barely spoke to her because I wanted to protect myself from her “help”.

    People like these women try to make perfectly strong wonderful people feel bad. They do this to make themselves feel smug, centered and in charge. Sorry, but this formally has leaned that occasional everyday annoyances are a part of life and don’t need to be combated with prayer or positivity.

    I “get” that some people (probably a really small percentage of the human race) are genuinely positive, thankful people who are great at finding that silver lining. I am pleased to know a few of them. The difference between an honestly good person and “annoying virtue” person is that persons ability to say “I know – I also hate it when the pie doesn’t turn out! Let’s cover it with whipped cream and eat the whole damn thing anyway.”

  9. Christine says:

    As my therapist says, pain is pain. It doesn’t matter that there are people who are worse off than you are. Comments like the one posted to your friend’s status diminish your friend’s right to have and feel pain.

  10. Laurel says:

    Beautifully and clearly said. The New Age-y positivity-at-all-costs mantra is facile and, in the end, has an undertone of hostility all its own. Moreover, it closes off the possibility of kind of grit and substance you see in people who have truly been through the ringer and come through the other side. Anyway, I guess I am just saying a big AMEN to this post, and especially the sentiment that you “cannot be truly grateful unless you acknowledge the PURE SUCKITUDE of some aspects of life.”

  11. Amy says:

    You’ve got a winner here.

    While I am, happily and thankfully, in a surprisingly long period of deep and profound gratitude for my life and family, that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes resent my mother’s inability to manage her own life, hate my husband for not listening to me, or get frustrated and scared about being laid off. And that’s all ok and good.

    I was raised in a family where it was not ok to have negative feelings. In fact, it wasn’t until my early 20s that I realized I got mad. I thought I just didn’t have that emotion! (Yeah, that was an interesting week when I figured out I do get mad.)

    But, mostly, it has never, ever made sense to me to have awful things happen to you and supposed to be grateful it’s not worse. Or even grateful the awful thing has happened to you. Sure, I’ve turned a lot of horrible things into good things (my husband almost died, and it really proved we can handle anything life throws at us, which was handy when a few years later my m-i-l committed suicide). Feeling bad about your crappy situation does not mean you can’t still feel badly for other people’s crappy situations. But you can’t deny your own.

    Thanks for posting this.

  12. Demetra says:

    Stephanie… The truth in your post really affected me. I really enjoyed and felt comforted by reading it!
    I won’t go on about things I have to be thankful for or not thankful for. In general, I’ve been fortunate in my life and like the Sphinx in Greek mythology have been able to pick myself up and “rise again from (my very own) ashes” (hope the translation makes sense).

    I do remember though when my uncle, who raised me and stood like a rock by my side throughout my 40 years (along with my mom), was diagnosed (and 7 months later, died from) leukemia – how devastated I was. People, in an effort to comfort me, would sometimes say that I was lucky to have him all the years that I did… that he was 73 and how much worse it is when younger people and children die of illness.

    This made me feel totally alone because although the logic in my head tells me that it IS horrible for children to die (and suffer from illness) as well as individuals younger in age. I wanted my uncle to live. He had so much more to give and to do. He was the grandfather to my kids. They adored him and he impacted their lives (and mine) tremendously. If he wasn’t going to live, I didn’t want him to suffer as much as he did during his illness. That sucked big time and also took an enormous emotional toll on me.

    Of course, I did have support from close friends but in the end, withdrew and kept the pain to myself.

    Thank you so much for posting this.

  13. [...] weaves together more thoughtful pieces on what it means to age (see here for some ruminations on Thanksgivings past) alongside some very funny observations about aging, like this one on the SunMaid Raisin [...]