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Must we all join the cult of gratitude?

Cloud in the purple sky with stars

I always wondered why the whole “bloom where you’re planted” and “be grateful for what you have” thing left me feeling empty. Not just empty, but it left me feeling guilty, like an ungrateful, selfish wretch.

I don’t know if you were an Oprah follower back in the days of her regular talk show, but for a while one of her repeat guests was Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance: a Daybook of Comfort and Joy. Back in the mid-1990s – when Ms. Ban Breathnach was a regular guest – I was a young mom at home with my little ones and running a state-licensed daycare in our home. My husband was a confirmed work-a-holic on an ambitious career path, and to say that I was starved for some comfort and joy would be a vast understatement, so naturally I was drawn to Ms. Ban Breathnach’s advice. Among her many bits of wisdom, Ms. Ban Breathnach asked her readers to find happiness and serenity in everything they already had:

“When we do a mental and spiritual inventory of all that we have, we realize that we are very rich indeed. Gratitude gives way to simplicity – the desire to clear out, pare down, and realize the essentials of what we need to live truly well. Simplicity brings with it order, both internally and externally. A sense of order in our life brings us harmony. Harmony provides us with the inner peace we need to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us each day, and beauty opens us to joy. But just as with any beautiful needlepoint tapestry, it is difficult to see where one stitch ends and another begins. So it is with Simple Abundance.

I ached for comfort, joy, simplicity and the rest of it, yet it seemed as elusive as recreational space travel.

Besides the aforementioned chaos, at the time this book came into my life, unrelenting financial pressures were an oppressive force in our lives; we lived from paycheck to paycheck, on the razor’s edge of budget shortfall where something as simple as a blown tire meant adding to our mounting debt.

I won’t bother articulating here how my own coping mechanism of choice during these years was to stuff my frustration and stress down with food, since I wrote an entire book about how I gained and ultimately lost 100+ pounds, but I will say that I so wanted to believe that bringing more gratitude to my daily life would alleviate the unrelenting pressure and frustration that were my everyday experience.

It didn’t.

As I said, all it really did was make me feel like a bad person because I couldn’t tap into it.

The idea of spending time in reflection about all the good things in our lives, focusing on the positive rather than the negative – looking for silver linings essentially – is admirable, to be sure.

And more recently books such as The Happiness Project and The Gratitude Diaries have sparked a movement to make us all feel warm and fuzzy inside by counting our blessings and doing the right thing.

Let me say again that all of this stuff – gratitude, happiness, mindfulness – is all really, really great. We could all use a lot more of it.

But you can’t just manufacture happiness and gratitude in a vacuum. For us to cultivate a more enlightened state we must first feel seen and understood, as if our own voice is heard.

After a devastating job loss and subsequent pity party, Janice Kaplan, author of The Gratitude Diaries, says that “Being grateful sounded like a nice replacement for resentment, indignation and pique.”

So true. Nobody wants to linger too long in the darkness of all of that negativity.

But hang on a second.

There is a lot to be learned in those dark spaces of our existence. There is an important part of ourselves in the darkness.

Even more important, denying the darkness doesn’t make it go away.

All those years ago when I was a stressed out young mom trying so desperately to put on a happy, grateful face for the world to see, I was actually struggling with desperate feelings of loneliness, inadequacy and ultimately resentment and anger. Dark feelings, for sure.

Scrambling to find gratitude and happiness because I had the outward trappings of comfort and success left me feeling like a fraud because I wasn’t – I simply couldn’t – give voice to my own needs. Learning to do so has been an ongoing struggle. I’ve had to come to terms with the simple truth that feelings – good and bad – just are. We don’t have to justify them. They don’t have to be rational. And they don’t have to pass any sort of validity test.

I grew up believing that the suffering of someone who has, let’s say, lost a loved one or been diagnosed with cancer, is more legitimate than the suffering of someone who is lonely or just feels unappreciated. After all, who could argue that losing a loved one or being diagnosed with cancer brings with it tremendous suffering? Of course they do, as do innumerable other tragedies that befall people.

But the truth is, suffering is suffering.

All those years ago, I felt like my little “complaints,” as I characterized them (hear the self-judgment in that word?), were unworthy of being attended to by anyone, so why voice them?

So I didn’t.

And I suffered in silence with them until the suffering became unbearable and my life crumbled before me. One way or another, feelings will be heard. One isn’t more worth attending to than the other. And ignoring one is just as devastating as ignoring the other.

What I had to learn is that gratitude – true gratitude – isn’t just making a checklist of all the comforts that we have in life. It’s not even about all the people in our lives whom we love and who love us back. True gratitude comes from living a life that is aligned with who you really are. It is an appreciation not just for what you have but also for what is.

Gratitude is truth, honesty and presence. And when I have the chance to experience it, and even better, to share it with others, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.


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