I do not at all understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. Anne Lamott
So many of my clients tell me that gratitude, used as a skill for wellbeing, is not helpful.
They try to keep a gratitude journal, but when they scan their lives for what to feel grateful for, they come up short. Other people in their lives are abusive or neglectful. Plans and dreams disappoint. The news is harsh. The weather sucks. And holidays bring bad memories and stressful dynamics.
I get it.
There is a lot that’s not right with the world. This has always been. Suffering is everywhere. Greed leads. So it should be no surprise that a sense of gratitude doesn’t come to us easily.
Yet social science has much to say about its benefits. Researchers Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Michael McCullough report that subjects who practice gratitude experience decreased anxiety and depression, and also demonstrate kinder behavior towards others, express less aggression, and make fewer physical complaints.
The question is, can you be grateful when you are hurting or if you don’t have enough to be grateful for?
Maybe the problem lies in how we understand gratitude. Maybe we look for it in the wrong place.
Sometimes, when I ask my clients to focus on gratitude, I see their gaze turning upward, suggesting they are searching for the answer outside of themselves. They appear to be considering what the world, or other people, or the cosmic divine, has provided for them. They say: Let me see, who or what has earned my thanks? And by the way, what have you done for me lately?
Next, I see them searching even further outside themselves, demonstrating a sort of global scan. When they squint their eyes I can tell they are measuring. Then comes the question: Have I gotten enough? And, how does it compare?
When I see the furled brow I know: they are thinking that they are not worthy. They say, I am not worth taking in that which I could be grateful for. I have to give to get. A feeling of debt fills the office space.
And so it goes with our consumer-based gratitude. I never get enough and I am never enough.
But what if gratitude isn’t something that has to be earned? What if it there were no external standards of measure that lead us to feeling grateful?
What if feeling grateful doesn’t have to wait until pain and suffering cease?
Consider this: the word gratitude is derived from the Latin gratia, which translates as grace. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines grace as “unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” Perhaps gratitude, like the state of grace, is an unmerited birthright.
Maybe gratefulness is in you, like the stars are in the sky.
Perhaps gratitude, like your breath, is just there, sitting inside your wise waiting self, ready to serve?
To feel gratitude is a creative act, which means it is generated from a source within you. And this experience, like all of art, can be had along side pain and deprivation. This is the beauty of us; we are that complex.
Close your eyes. Take some breaths. Tell yourself that for this moment the feeling of gratitude lives deep in your multilayered person. It doesn’t have to have a reason to be there. You are its creator. Don’t worry, it will never run out. There is an endless supply of grateful energy in you.
This holiday, instead of chewing our pencils as we ponder and scribble into our diaries reasons to be grateful, let’s just sit still and look inside. Peer down deep into our personal well of being, and let her fill up from within.
Ask yourself, whom do I gift with my gratitude, rather than who has earned my gratitude.
Don’t worry if this feels foreign at first. We have a ways to go before we can truly stop seeing others as assets and ourselves as consumers. Perhaps someday we will let go of the idea that life owes us, and just creatively participate in what it brings.