Plopped on my dinner plate is a revolting assortment of Swiss cheese, mushrooms, and red onion (one of the worst combos my distinguished pallet can imagine ☺). I express my disgust, and my grandfather’s response, who grew up during the end of The Great Depression, is, “Well when I was a kid, I had to eat what we had, not what I liked”. Needless to say, his attempts to guilt me into changing my taste buds rendered no fruit, and the food remained uneaten. Although the events and characters depicted in this story are fictitious, any similarity to the actual people and events are purely coincidental, but his quote isn’t. I’ve never of anyone actually changing their preferences as a result of being shamed or guilted. We may change our behavior for a season, but we can’t change our preferences, pallets, or passions out of coercion. Children starving in Africa may help me to appreciate the mushrooms I do have, but it doesn’t help me prefer them over, say, bell pepper. I have an assortment of bounty at my fingertips, but so often focus on the Lake House I don’t have instead of the awesome backyard or hardwood-floored house I do have. According to what research you read, I am at worst in the top 3 to 5% of wealth in the world and often times struggle to get past my “first-world problems” into appreciating what I do have. Yet I also experience, as any other human being that has or ever will grace Earth, great tragedy and heartache that is unavoidable regardless of my SES. So how can one live authentically in such a broken world without feeling grief, anger, fear of all kinds, and depression? How can one live, regardless of quality of life, in the same world that is simultaneously full of beauty, inspiration, wonderful rhythms of seasons and all that there is to be relished and not feel some degree of gratitude, joy, excitement and even moments of ecstasy?
I believe these seemingly warring sentiments can coexist—even in the same moment. In fact, if we’re truly authentic, how can they, in varying proportions, not always be manifest inside us on this side of heaven? The question isn’t whether or not one will feel either, but rather how do we honor both without excluding one or the other? It seems that we don’t err in our ability to experience either pessimism or optimism (although I do believe it’s most often much easier to focus on the negative), but rather in our inability to have proper balance of the two so as to live as authentically brave as possible.
I’ve written on the necessity of emotional integration and embracing our grief in healthy ways to achieve healthier, more abundant lives. Gratitude, however, seems to be an often ignored, untapped resource. One like the savant who could solve our dependence on oil, but is overlooked because girls in her part of the world aren’t supposed to be intellectual, much less good at math. If you cold indulge me, I’d like to make an appeal for good old fashioned thankfulness.
The positive psychology movement has graced us by reminding us of age-old truths that focusing on the solutions instead of the problem, and building on our strengths instead of playing the victim can actually increase our chances of successfully overcoming obstacles to healthy functioning. The beautiful Indian Rickshaw driver in the documentary Happy courageously displays this attitude. This is building what Julian Rotter called a strong “internal locus of control”, where one feels they have a significant amount of influence on the trajectory of their life. So often people may try and do this (i.e., better their situation), but their efforts may prove ineffectual. They begin to find it harder to believe they have a say in their destiny and therefore Rotter would say they had an external locus of control. If over time this continues they may develop what Martin Seligman (2011) coined “learned helplessness”, believing that the world around them has more to say about their success/destiny than they do themselves. Tragically, the more we struggle, the more likely we are to run low on motivation, and therefore the more likely we are to give up the fight all together. Victor Frankl (1984), a holocaust survivor, says that man can take anything from you: your name, clothes, food, family—even you life. Yet, he says that man can never take away your ability to choose how to respond to any given situation—as long as we’re breathing and our hearts are beating. His admiration of past love and hope for future love kept him going when many of his peers died from surrendering to exhaustion and hopelessness. He chose to find meaning in maintaining the courage to be gratuitous to his fellow inmates despite the miserable conditions. If anyone could have authority to say this, I would imagine he would. This of course is the extreme end of things, but even in the most tragic of events we can always find meaning in our ability to choose how to respond to things that are out of our control and even decide to see the beauty amidst our tragedy. Focusing on what we can control and what we do have, of course, doesn’t perform magic tricks and give us control over things we have no autonomy over, but it can mitigate our misery and assist, not sustain, meaning-making.
While this is very true and grounded in plenty of research, I believe movements like The Secret, headed up by Rhonda Byrne, has caused many Gen-Xers and Millennials to disdain gratitude and write it off as Polly-Anna lip service. These movements, including the prosperity gospel, are what I call positive psychology on steroids. They promote the illusion that we have control over things clearly outside our realm of dominion via the “law of attraction”. Saying if one thinks positively enough one can cure their cancer is patronizing at best. Or others might say we even have control over what family we’re born into, saying that if we have an abusive family environment that we are somehow working out some jacked up unfinished business we had from another life. Awesome! I’m already behind the 8-ball because of something I did in another life before I even have an opportunity to author my current one, which I actually can control?! Or others might say if I’d just had more faith & prayed more fervently that I could’ve avoided my Crohn’s disease. It’s modern day Gnosticism; not a direct overlay of course, but in the sense that it is only those with the “special knowledge” that are truly free. I believe putting the weight of responsibility for things clearly out of one’s control is unnecessarily shaming and often can cause us to put our limited amount of time, effort, or energy into things we can’t control, thus, holding us back. If I commit my limited store of energy trying to squeeze water out of a rock, then I am less likely to tap into the well found in my own backyard.
Our visceral response to this type of magical thinking has been to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Let me encourage you to give gratitude another chance. Yes thinking positively increases our chances of overcoming cancer, but if we can acknowledge that there is a line where our destiny is out of our hands, whether you believe that is God or not, we can then not loose the great treasure trove that is within the practices of gratitude and positive psychology explained earlier in the cause of sincerity/authenticity. Trying to give gratitude and positive thinking the power to heal multiple sclerosis is akin to trying to fit Texas into the Georgia slot on my map of the USA puzzle…it just doesn’t work. Yet our response doesn’t mean we have to leave Georgia blank; let us put it in its proper place instead of throwing such an integral peace out. After all, what would our wonderful Union be without the great peach state?!
Here’s the long and short of it: to be grateful is to open myself up to also being let down by whatever it is I cherish being taken from me. AKA, vulnerability. I don’t like that. I’d rather trust in a screen, a bag of chips, or my sarcastic cynicism that gives me an illusion of superiority and even control then I ever would take delight in an everyday occurrence like the veins in a oak tree leaf. Brene’ Brown (2012) talks about us using “foreboding joy” as a way to avoid this vulnerability. She describes how we tend to go to the worst case scenario when overwhelmed with the beauty of life, like when we drink in the beauty of our child sleeping, yet immediately imagine something terrible happening to them as if to prepare us if/when that were to happen. What this does, however, is caps if not hinders entirely our ability to truly appreciate whatever it is we’re being overwhelmed by. It can sometimes even become a self-fulfilling prophesy in many ways, one if by always assuming the worst I cause those around me to become exacerbated by my worry. Brown (2012) again says that gratitude is the anecdote to foreboding joy because it causes me to take stock of and appreciate what I do have instead of what I don’t, what could happen, or what I could loose. One of her research participants put it this way, “Don’t shrink away from the joy of your child because I’ve lost mine” (Brown 2012). We honor those with less by appreciating what we do have. How much more frustrating is it for someone in poverty to see someone in wealth simply have greed for more? Of course this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give out of our abundance. But wouldn’t you much rather others help you in your time of need out of their joy instead of their guilt or obligation?
Yes life is unpredictable and I could loose whatever I treasure at any moment. However, in spite of all our tragedy, I think it very courageous of us to take stock of all the heartache that never happened because of our good fortune. To relish in what is instead of what might have been. G.K. Chesterton (1908) talks about his experience of life being something akin to Robinson Crusoe, who was shipwrecked on an island (for those of you not familiar with the book). Chesterton continues, “It is a good exercise, in empty or ugly hours of the day, to look at anything…and think how happy one could be to have brought it out of the sinking ship and on to the solitary island”. Familiarity breed contempt, and we’ve grown quit aquatinted with seeing remarkable things with our “old eyes”. Again, Chesterton (1908) accounts:
“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon…It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE.”
Have we forgotten what it’s like to allow ourselves to be defenseless enough to be enraptured by a good joke, a baby’s laughter, a beautiful song or landscape…you fill in the blank? Let me encourage you to take time after reading this to do so, as if whatever you see is something you might not have had had things gone differently. My daughter and I take stock for what she is grateful for as a part of bed-time routine. I’m often startled by the simplicity of what she says, as it almost always is something unique to that day and oftentimes that moment, like she’s treading through her days with an attitude of “What’s next daddy?”. She often asks, “What are we going to do after nap time or night-night?”, as if we’re constantly going from one epic moment to the next. This of course has to be an act of the will. Gratitude doesn’t just happen. Tragedy, heartache, fear, unfair criticism, zits, gas, heartburn…those things just happen. Of course some of it’s avoidable, but certainly not all. Over time tragedy can wear away at our infant sentiments that take delight in the otherwise mundane and lead to us focusing on how we think things should’ve been. The rain falls on all, and it’s on us to decide whether or not to allow it to water the soil of our heart and not just make us wet and uncomfortable. Gratitude is not contingent upon ideal circumstances anymore than forgiveness is upon the repentance of the perpetrator, assuming that forgiveness doesn’t imply trusting the one I am letting go of my anger with. Remember, true authenticity must acknowledge the duality of my grief and thankfulness that coexist in some degree at every moment. In fact, I believe our capacity/receptivity to gratitude actually increases proportionately with our ability to clear out space for it to grow by having catharsis of our grief in its many forms via honest emotional expression with out higher power/others. Again, this is all within our volition & requires intentionality and vulnerability.
So take a moment to take stock of what’s made it through the wreckage with you today. Take the risk of being vulnerable enough to enjoy something that might actually disappoint you if you were to loose it. Enjoy what you have so that you can honor those who may have less. Indulge yourself in the joy we forgot when we “grew up” of being once again blown away by whatever you have or experienced that had things gone differently today you wouldn’t have known.
Brown, B. (2016). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
Chesterton, Gilbert K, and Jon V Hofwegen. Orthodoxy. Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/orthodoxy.html.
Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Seligman, M. E. (2011). Learned optimism. North Sydney, N.S.W.: Random House Australia.