The word “gratitude” is thrown around a lot these days. It’s pasted all over Pinterest, Instagram, and Twitter, a mantra so overused, yet so misunderstood. So often the word itself seems diluted, unaffecting, even, dare I say it, cliché. Yes, we all know Oprah wrote a gratitude journal every day for 10 years, and that the only way to overcome adversity and sadness and to achieve happiness is through gratitude, blah blah blah. Every day I see these quotes, like “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls” (Aesop) or “Start each day with a grateful heart” or “Gratitude helps us see what is there instead of what isn’t” or “Be kind, be grateful” or, my personal least favorite, “Gratitude makes me fall in love with my life every day.” WHAT?!?! Look, I’m not knocking gratitude. On the contrary, this entire post is about the power of it, but we hear it so much it’s almost like white noise. “Fall in love with my life every day?” I know people who are in seriously horrible situations right now—right now I have close friends who have, in this year alone, lost a child, lost a husband, gotten a divorce, lost their home in the Tubs Fire, my friend had to literally rescue his mom from the devastation in Puerto Rico. She was practically homeless, no food, no power, no oxygen to help with her labored breathing, no phones, no gas, nothing. Now, this Pinterest quote is telling her she only needs gratitude to “be in love with her life”? I don’t think so. It’s a catchphrase constantly being thrown around that is often myopic, self-interested, and misconstrued. Be grateful for all your blessings. Duh, of course we should be.
This is gratitude ~ misunderstood.
My point: Let’s take gratitude from an over-used, often solipsistic, diluted slogan and use it as a tool, one that actually propels you from heartache, softens misery, connects relationships, and, dare I say it, gives us a peace that transcends understanding.
I love quotes, OK, I’m not knocking Pinterest by any means. I have my own board of quotes and am totally obsessed with other’s words of advice and wisdom (I am currently looking at an old copy of “Positive Quotations” in my bedroom, the binding tattered from constant opening, the pages covered in highlighter and pen marking my favorites, and it gets me thinking I need another edition, I love it so much). But sometimes those quotes can just be so generic they actually begin to mean nothing.
Gratitude is not something you take. It’s something you GIVE. Every.day. It’s a muscle that needs to be exercised and trained. And too often, we’re inundated with generic quotes about it that it loses the intended effect. That is where personal testimony comes in. Sometimes, the context of quotes is more powerful than the quotation itself. Case in point: The old Christian hymn, “It is well with my soul.” (If anyone reading this has read my blog about my daughter, they already know what I’m about to say here.) It was written by Horatio G. Spafford who lost a child to scarlet fever; Then, lost all of his children (4 daughters) to a shipwreck at sea, where only his wife survived. He wrote the song on his way to his wife, across the very sea where his children perished. Whoa.
That is gratitude ~ understood.
Fast forward to me few days ago: Upon embarking on Thanksgiving vacay week, I was exuberant, excited to get outta town, spend hours in the kitchen cooking, and highly anticipating gorging myself guiltlessly for a full day of food (something I deeply enjoy, since I eat pretty healthy most of the time, and have been fasting on and off for weeks, I was so ready for guiltless indulgence). But then the excitement just faded, like a fast cloud on a sunny day, I felt a soft, grey darkness wash over me: grief.
To counter-attack it, I jumped right back into my gratitude work. Praying, thinking positive thoughts- Wasn’t working. So I moved on to my book, and my Pinterest gratitude quotes, desperately searching for one to make me feel better. Funny thing was, I couldn’t actually find a quote that had impact on my heart. I looked every night, read and read and read and read. Even good ole’ Spafford’s story didn’t affect me in any positive way this time. I didn’t understand, I was thankful for my blessings in life, but I was not feeling happy whatsoever. Why wasn’t my usual gratefulness routine working????!
Then, upon leaving for the airport, rushing out the door, slightly frantically late as usual, I ran inside one last time for a quick scan to make sure I had everything. House was clean and there wasn’t much to look over…then it saw it. The stickers on the side of my fridge that I look at every day. The stickers my husband bought in Maui, on a family vacation we took three weeks after our daughter, Amelie, passed away (at a young 6 years old from brain cancer complications) to process and be alone with our son. The stickers have been on my fridge for months, and I read them often. But for some reason, I saw them anew that morning.
“We are blessed. Gratitude for all there is and all there isn’t.”
Amelie’s picture hangs below it. Red and orange autumn leaves falling from her little hand, contentedly enjoying herself. A picture also taken on Thanksgiving weekend, just a short 3 years ago when life was perfect. She was healthy, whole, beautiful.
It hit me like a baseball bat to the chest.
But I was late and had to go, so I ran outside to the car, engine idling, hopped in and zoomed off to catch our flight.
All week long it slowly crept up on me in such a way that my head resisted the simple, totally subtle message screaming at me in my own house: Gratitude for all there isn’t.
Sometimes gratitude isn’t “loving every minute of your life every day” or being happy happy joy joy, unaffected in the face of adversity. Sometimes, I realized, gratitude is being damn grateful you didn’t get what you wanted or that even worse shit didn’t (and doesn’t) happen.
I had to be grateful on Thanksgiving, not just for all the abundance of food and family and stuff, but grateful in a darker, more complex, less “pretty-perfectly-positive” way. Yes, Oprah’s gratitude journal is awesome, and I totally recommend doing it, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being grateful for things you just don’t understand, and being grateful that you don’t have to understand.
I rarely asked “why” Amelie got sick. I know people get sick sometimes, and asking “why” is just wasted energy. Who cares why. She was sick and I had to deal with it and I got to care for her. I am grateful for that. I rarely asked “why” God took her from my arms to Heaven. Who cares why. He took her and I’ll never fully understand all the reasons, and I don’t have to. I’m grateful for that. I know she brought my husband to Jesus, and that alone can answer a “why,” but, like every grieving parent knows, the dark hole goes down inside your gut forever, and asking “why” just makes it bigger and darker and more infinite….it does for me any way.
So when I read all these quotes about gratitude as this lighthearted thing, I sometimes balk. Nope, sorry pretty Pinterest graphic images, I am not “in love with my life” any more. My daughter is dead. My dad’s lung cancer is back. My marriage goes from amazing to horrendous in a day as my husband and I struggle with grief. My son is now an only child, and I’m terrified I may—or may not—have another child. I don’t have to be “in love” with that. I don’t have to be grateful for that. And that very idea is what I am grateful for. And no one else has to understand that but me. And guess what, I’m grateful for that, too.
So this last week on Thanksgiving, I sat there and with every delicious bite I took, in my heart I consciously said “THANK YOU, LORD for all there isn’t.” My baby is no longer. Thank you, Lord. She’s no longer a quadriplegic, she’s no longer trapped inside a hurting body, she’s no longer suffering in a chaotic world no one understands. Thank you, Lord.
“Gratitude opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than ignore or take for granted as it flies us by.” Neel Burton
Gratitude without humility, wonder, awe, pain, sorrow, grief….is just appreciation. The next time someone expresses or communicates a moment of gratitude to you, a compliment, a kind generous, gesture, or even says, ‘thank you,’ stop. Let it sink in. Rather than gloss over it, allow it to seep deeply into your body and being. Savor it. When we do that, we’re physically practicing ‘The Art of Gratitude’ and reciprocating it back to the universe. For gratitude isn’t just about receiving, or simply being grateful for blessings and all that you have, rather, it goes much deeper. Gratitude for things you DON’T have. Gratitude is giving, offering THANKS to the world, and living in a realm outside of yourself and your own gifts. Therein lies the true Art of Gratitude.