“Our life begins to end the day we stop being grateful.” -Anonymous
It’s that time of year when many of us gather with loved ones intending to give thanks. We experience tender moments with family or at least what we hope will be tender moments. Too often we’ve become disappointed as the actual closeness with family is less than what we had wished for. Sometimes old hurtful patterns still menace us. Perhaps we should have known better; hope always springs eternal. This holiday letdown may be the story of our life. Our heart may have been open to love in many past relationships but got repeatedly broken. Now the very idea of gratitude may leave a sour taste in our mouth. Perhaps we wouldn’t go so far as agreeing with Stalin, the fiendish dictator of Russia, who once said, “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” Nevertheless, those of us with broken hearts may have very little use for gratitude.
I say we cannot live without gratitude. We need it even more when we’ve become alienated. This idea may seem untenable. After all ingratitude may be our hidden means of protecting ourselves. It’s how we don’t get our hopes up lest we get hurt again. Or, it may be our way to express simmering anger towards those who’ve harmed us. Unfortunately such an attitude only hurts ourselves. In resenting those who’ve harmed us we’re not able to forgive ourselves. You see, believe it or not, we still love those who have injured us and those very people are part of who we are today. That’s why many of us still show up for holiday family dinners. It’s absolutely normal to care for people who have been less than caring towards us. This attitude is encompassed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” None of us can really afford to give up gratitude. We choose gratitude over alienation.
Despite how healthy it is to be thankful too many of us don’t know how to do it. We may overlook the tender feelings we have towards loved ones through frantic gift-giving. We buy people things rather than give of ourselves. Some of us never say thanks; we just give gifts. Somehow we feel the gift of ourselves to others is never enough. Others may simply take dear ones for granted and get more caught up in family rituals and fun, forgetting altogether why we are in families in the first place. Finally, there are those of us who have been hurt in our families. We have no way to reconcile the warm feelings we would like to feel with the gnawing pain from being betrayed and hurt in our families. We may simply space out any positive regard for our relatives or feel numb.
However, let’s not be fooled. No matter how incompletely we’ve been loved by our parents and siblings a part of us always has longings for more. A part of us always has gratitude for what did go well between our loved ones and us but that appreciation may feel way too dangerous to recognize. If only we knew why being grateful is so essential.
Why gratitude is so important
Meister Eckhart once said, “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” This thought may sound simplistic but it isn’t. Expressing heartfelt gratitude validates the significance of caring relationships in our life and our wish that they continue. Such efforts allow us to see the bigger picture when relationships go through rough times and remind us that we are not alone in life in hard times. Saying thanks is the basis of all human joy, the type that endures even more when we aren’t in the presence of loved ones. Gratitude also has healing magical powers. It’s the way we go from being victims of life to being thrivers in life. Honestly acknowledging what others have added to our lives actually allows us to more accurately see how they have detracted from our lives. Being thankful really holds others more accountable to us as we hold ourselves more accountable to them. It allows us to feel the feelings we’ve bottled up for years, must to our detriment. Gratitude enables us to truly grieve. Finally saying sincere thanks can be our great life-changer. How many of us have said thanks for a life-threatening illness once we’ve witnessed our incredible strengths to survive it and the amazing love of others we’ve felt perhaps for the first time? How many of us in forgiving (but not forgetting) those who have harmed us find ourselves amazingly more healed? It takes way more courage to say thanks than to hold on to grudges. Gratitude makes us bigger persons and opens us to all of life’s blessings.
What stops us from giving thanks?
Clearly if it were so easy to really give thanks all of us would already be doing it and I would be out of a job. It’s not easy to give thanks. Too many of us, especially when we feel wronged, can’t find one ounce of appreciation in ourselves. Too many of us who are so numbed and depressed are happy enough just to get through the day, let alone tell someone thanks. Some of us recovering addicts can at best be only grateful for the last few hours of sobriety before we reach our next meeting. To those who find gratitude impossible I say: there is an ounce of gratitude inside you somewhere, it’s OK just to get through the day and be thankful for that alone, and at least you have the last few hours of being sober to be thrilled at and likely more to come with the help of your Higher Power. The main hindrance to gratitude is our expectations. Let’s go slow in giving thanks. We’re doing the best we can. Less is more.
Some of us are way too scared to be grateful, partly due to our own misconceptions and generosity. If we have kind thoughts and express them to those who have hurt us we become alarmed that such endearment gives others carte blanche to hurt us again or else lessens the gravity of how they have already diminished our lives. If loved ones have been emotionally distant from us throughout our lives due to their own demons we believe we are entitled to ditch them today and see no benefit from engaging them emotionally. Such reactions are understandable and common but we are actually unrealistic and limiting. The reality is we never stop loving those who have harmed us. Our hatred alone announces how much our tormentors mean to us. Choosing alienation doesn’t protect us, truly harms how we adjust to life as a whole and worsens the pain of our abandoned heart. Alienation is a dead end.
“Learn as if you were going to live forever. Live as if you were going to die tomorrow.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Practicing gratitude wisely
Let’s be smart. It’s not a good idea to thank someone if we can find nothing to thank them for or if we’re still defenseless around them. It’s best to keep a distance from such people and practice gratitude by proxy. Look for people who have added to your life and let them know what they mean to you. Be specific. Express yourself in a card or direct eye-to-eye contact. Expect nothing in return. What you do for another will be enough reward in itself. Don’t let your words be brushed aside as dear friends may get antsy with your directness. Repeat your words if necessary. Trust that you will be heard as long as you speak with a pure heart. Such efforts will change you and your relationships in general. Repeat this gift of yourself as often as you’d like.
If you have mixed feelings towards a dear one who is emotionally aloof from you, realize that ambivalence is extremely normal. There are no good guys and bad guys in life. People who have harmed us have their good sides; we ourselves are hardly innocent of wrongdoings towards those who have been imperfect with us. Realize that you will have to set limits, be assertive and protect yourself around hurtful people. Begin to open a dialogue with your lost love by expressing your appreciation of what has worked in your relationship to that person. Your relative or old friend may be thrown off by your directness and may not immediately reply to you in ways you wished would happen. Be grateful anyway. He or she may likely have strong and supportive reactions later. When you say thanks to a difficult person you affirm that part of yourself where this person lives in your own heart. Gratitude is a high form of self-affirmation. After your loving moment with a difficult person you will likely have great sadness and perhaps some anger and hurt that is very old. Find a trusted friend to share this reaction and decide if you need to also express those painful feelings to your difficult loved one as well. Often just being kind to those whom have injured us is enough. It’s not the difficult people who scare us; it’s how those difficult people live inside us that freaks us out. When we befriend difficult people we forgive ourselves.
If expressing appreciation to those who have harmed you is not your cup of tea, don’t worry. You may have other life challenges that are more pressing. Perhaps at a later date you may face the ghosts of your past with a difficult person. In any case, don’t give up on gratitude. Think of all the amazing unrecognized people who have contributed to your life: the delivery person who faithfully puts your newspaper at your door on frigid mornings, the bus driver who saves you from being stranded in the middle of nowhere, the fire and police people who keep our lives save while simultaneously putting their lives at risk every day, the mischievous children on your block that remind you that there is more to life than work, the minimum wage worker who tolerates chaos and insolence in checking you out at the department store, the tireless overworked people who teach and inspire our children in a culture of insubordination and of course, the very people we live with each day who put up with our idiosyncrasies and substantial imperfections. Needless to say, the list goes on. All of these people deserve our gratitude expressed often and earnestly.
Ultimately when we open our hearts to gratitude we feel so much less alone in this universe and we are protected by a safety net of love. Let me take this opportunity to thank you, my readers, who give me the privilege of being a part of your lives. Your support is my safety net and joi de vie.
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul. He can be reached at 651-699-4573.
This article was first published in the December 2009 issue.