When I was a child being thankful was more about manners than real appreciation. When Aunt Lucy insisted that that my brother and I take the candies she’d dredged up from the bottom of her purse covered in lint and other unsavoury and unidentifiable bits, my mother prodded us with a hasty, “What do you say?”
We of course responded on cue, our small voices chanting, “Thank you,” with compliance if not enthusiasm. We were not expected to enjoy the candies. We were not permitted to refuse them. We were expected to express thanks.
The confusing messages about gratitude didn’t stop there. Growing up, if I tried to get up from the supper table without finishing the peas that had been put on my plate (you know the ones- pale green, from the can and simmered for twenty minutes to finish off any texture or taste that might have survived the canning process) my mother would call me back with an admonishment about starving children on other continents who would be grateful to eat the peas I did not want. Once- and only one- I suggested that the offending vegetables should be shipped to those who could fully appreciate them.
Then there was the general principle of gratitude that was presented as one of a long list of “shoulds" emphasized if we wanted or asked for something. We should be grateful for what we have. We should be grateful that we are not starving, that bombs are not falling on our houses, that we have a long list of freedoms that others in the world do not have.
Expressions of gratitude that are compelled by rules are often reduced to empty gestures devoid of real appreciation. And the “shoulds” around gratitude don’t stop with childhood. Just today I've read two blogs that, in preparation for the American Thankgiving, explicitly tell readers how and why they “should” be grateful. It’s not that I don’t think that cultivating gratitude can’t be done or that it isn’t a good idea. I just have doubts about our ability to experience the full joy of appreciation on demand.
Once, years ago, when I confessed to a therapist that I was disappointed- mostly with myself and some of what I had and had not done in my life- he cut me off before I could finish the sentence. “Well,” he said, “you know what the antidote for disappointment is, don’t you?” I waited. “Gratitude,” he said with a kind of fierce conviction. “Count your blessings. Be grateful, and you won’t be disappointed!” Feeling chastised I never brought my sense of disappointment to him again.
Counselling individuals who are often going through difficult times of confusion, ill health, financial crisis, divorce or other major losses, the statement I hear most often in initial sessions is: “I know I shouldn’t be feeling this sad (or angry or confused or scared.) I know I should feel grateful for what I do have. . . .” It’s not that people are unaware of those things of value in their lives. It’s not even that they aren’t grateful for caring family, or friends, or the job or home or health they may have. It’s that something else- some painful circumstance or choice or loss- is calling for their attention at the moment. And, if they feel they do not have the right to turn their attention to that pain because they “should” be grateful, they can neither fully appreciate what they do have nor take care of the painful inner or outer situation that needs tending.
Developing the habit of courteously acknowledging the things others do for us or offer to us is a good thing. It helps us live side by side. And, if I slow down and really see the other, I can put my heart into even simple words of common courtesy and convey real appreciation. Similarly, setting aside time on a regular basis- daily, weekly, and/or once a year- to do prayers or practices that acknowledge what is good in our lives can surely increase our ability to appreciate what life has provided. But, like all spiritual practises, if the intent has been lost in the rules, if we find ourselves having to deny the reality of the moment to try to feel something we think we “should” be feeling instead- it won’t work. Like most spiritual practises that bring us deeper into life this is not an "either/or." It’s an "and/but." It’s not- either I am grateful for my home or I am discouraged by my health. Some days it’s- I am discouraged about my health and I am deeply grateful to have a safe, comfortable place to live and rest.
Because the thing I am most grateful for, that aspect of life that I have learned to appreciate most deeply is that it is large enough to hold it all. We do not need to wait until everything is perfect in the world or our lives before we make room for deep gratitude for being alive today. But we also do not need to deny the pain or confusion or despair that may be present in this moment in order to be deeply grateful for the life we have been given. Life can hold it all, can hold us all. And for this I am deeply grateful.