April 8, 2013

What of it?

I must say, I got way more out of bitching and complaining the other day than I’ve been getting lately from practicing gratitude. Gratitude has its place, but I’m not sure that it’s at the center of some theoretical perfect way of being, where you’re always so overwhelmed with the joyous gift of living in the eternal present that you never experience a negative emotion directly; you only acknowledge one from afar, soberly and academically, you frown and nod over it, and then you use it as a life lesson about choosing to overcome negativity and how much better it feels if you’re grateful all the time. And you’re grateful to that negative emotion for teaching you that lesson, and you bow to the negative emotion respectfully with your hands pressed together, like you’re in a temple in a kung fu movie, and you back out of the room. And then the negative emotion sets up one of those automatic tennis ball serving machines about ten feet away from you and loads it up and starts firing fastballs at your head, your chest, your limbs, your stomach, while you sit there with your in breaths and your out breaths and your fucking gratitude just getting the shit beaned out of you over and over and over.

I love gratitude as much as the next person who pretends to love gratitude does. It has often brought me great comfort, or at least distraction. When my mother’s husband called me, weeping, to tell me she was dead, the first thing I thought, right after “oh fucking no, oh, no, no, no,” was “how can I spin this so it’s even a little bit livable with,” and I launched right into a litany of our blessings — she went quickly and painlessly at home in her husband’s arms, just like she would have wanted; she was at peace and out of pain now; we were all so very lucky to know her in the first place, and in dying before the rest of us, she would never have to know the grief we were feeling, and wasn’t it better to take that suffering upon ourselves rather than let her bear it? SO VERY GRATEFUL, was I. A beam of dedicated energy, energy dedicated to love. And it worked, for a while there — genuine gratitude got me through that first week, it was the crux (and the crutch) of my eulogy at her memorial; it was renewed with every sincere expression of sympathy or condolence I received. But you know what else got me through that stage? Binge eating and smoking like eight joints a day. And that’s not sustainable either.

To act grateful all the time is to deny the special nature of gratitude. Gratitude is an exalted state of peace reached for temporary moments between crises. It’s not the baseline* human emotion, every variance from which is a personal failing of will. If you’re grateful all the time, you’re ignoring the existence of half the universe, which is the half that sucks. Being mortal means living in fear, confusion, and desperation to survive, and how can you be grateful for that? You can’t, or the whole concept of gratitude means nothing. For without knowledge of pain, can there be knowledge of joy? Et cet-e-ra, et cet-e-ra?

Trying to be grateful when you’re just not is too much cognitive dissonance. Affirmations only work if you believe the content of them in the first place — they can only affirm things already inside you, they can’t sell you anything you don’t already have.** If you’re trying to tell yourself something you don’t believe, it’s only going to cause your rational self-consciousness to pop up and say, “Wait a minute — is that true?” And then you realize you don’t believe it, and yet you go on repeating this affirming phrase, which is now just you mocking yourself (“I am a loved and loving person! I am a loved and loving person! Nyah, I’m such a wuvved and wuvving person! Nyah!”). And then it’s your fault that it didn’t work, because you didn’t want it enough.

I want it. I want to be grateful all the time, because you can’t be unhappy in the midst of feeling grateful. Gratitude, while it lasts, obviates negativity — you have to look at the positive aspects of something to feel gratitude for it. If it was simply a matter of counting my blessings, I’d be delirious with glee all the time. And I’d be a blithering ignoramus with no concept of reality.

Thanks for reading!

(* I just imagined saying that word as “bass-e-leen,” because it’s only one consonant and a pronunciation from “Vaseline.”)

(** “Oh, Oz never did give nothin’ to the Tin Man, that he didn’t, didn’t already have…”)


  1. Kristina Glenn says:

    Well put doll… Finally someone who understands my confusion with gratitude. Though… I too still always try to find the silver lining. <3

  2. The mystic, Meister Eckhart believed that thanking God was the most important prayer. Prophets and monks know that gratitude brings you closer to God. Even if you’re not religious, gratitude enables you to see your life in a larger context beyond your immediate troubles. It expands your experience of life and counteracts an ego-centered contraction and preoccupation with losses, fears, and wants. Being grateful only when good things happen reinforces your ego’s demand that good things happen, setting up greater disappointment when things don’t turn out as you desire. This, according to Buddha, is the cause of suffering.

  3. Janice says:

    “Being grateful only when good things happen reinforces your ego’s demand that good things happen, setting up greater disappointment when things don’t turn out as you desire.”

    Tyler, I think you’re absolutely right — it’s just my ego that thinks somehow I should be spared the suffering that comes of the human condition, that none of us can avoid. I know that’s not a helpful or rational idea (though it does seem to be one of the ideas that came with my Human Condition kit, as I see everyone else is also hoping for the same ridiculous, unattainable thing).

    In fact, if I’m being rational, I see that if Life were fair, my own life would be much, much worse than it is, considering the amount of dumb luck and advantages I’ve had, and considering that I’m not currently trapped in the rubble of the sweatshop that collapsed on me while I was working for slave wages. Viewing tragedies that befall others as gratitude-fodder: Totally, empirically gross. But that thought too seems to have come with the kit: “Thank God I’m not that poor bastard over there.”

    I’m not smarter than Buddha. I’ve learned a lot (I hope) from Buddha. I know that the Buddha was aware that the desire to end desire as a means of freeing one’s self from the suffering we can’t escape is a contradiction in itself. And yet a worthwhile one. I do believe in the power of gratitude; I just don’t believe that it’s possible to feel gratitude all the time, any more than it’s possible to feel sorrow all the time (and I’ve tried really hard on that one). Maybe with practice I can transcend my ego, grow past the idea of a gratitude/suffering duality, and recognize that all feeling is just feeling. I’m still unpacking my kit.

  4. Janice says:

    (Hi Kristina! You yourself are a very silvery lining.)

  5. Lormo says:

    Gratitude is just being thankful things aren’t worse.

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