My Wariness of Gratitude
The Stoic philosopher Epicteus said, “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”
Why be wary of gratitude? I mean really, Catharine, gratitude is a great thing! Epictetus (and a bunch of other awesome people) says so!
Nonetheless, I have resisted for a long time the idea that gratitude is necessary for the spiritual life. Why? Dunno. Call me an ingrate? I think I need time to stand back from ideas that seem to be “thrown around” casually. Comments like, “Happiness isn’t having what you want, it is wanting what you have,” and “Take an attitude of gratitude,” have tended to make my skin crawl.
I suppose my wariness of such quotations is similar to my wariness of people telling others when they must forgive. That forgiveness is a requirement for some kind of spiritual elevation. (See my post The Problems of Forgiveness for more on this topic.) While I have experienced tremendous release and spaciousness from forgiveness, it has nonetheless—forgiveness, that is—been an organic process. It has had to emerge on its own time, through its own processes, and in relationship to my own practices.
So what does this have to do with gratitude?
Adoption and the Gratitude Error
One example of how gratitude gets used similarly to forgiveness—as a spiritual shillelagh—is in speaking about adoptees. “Oh that child is so lucky that you found them,” especially when speaking about international adoptees. “They must be so grateful.” Or worst of all, “You should be grateful your parents adopted you!”
Statements like these forget the complex of loss that surrounds adoption, the ethical questions involved, and treat adoptees as two-dimensional.
There is so much more to say about adoption and gratitude, but I don’t want to get stuck in that quagmire just now. For now, my point is this: Never tell another person when they ought to be grateful.
For that matter, I think we ought never tell another person when they ought to feel anything. How we feel, we human beings, is so complicated, so full of layers and history and things that others will never know, that telling someone how to feel is ludicrous at best and terribly harmful at worst.
Yes. This piece is about writing, and in fact, it’s about writing gratitude lists.
Gratitude lists have been one of the single most helpful spiritual practices of my life.
Wait. What? Didn’t you just say…? Yes, I said that telling other people to feel gratitude is harmful. However, when I speak of my own experience, I must admit that gratitude lists have become very helpful. Why?
Gratitude reorients me. It turns me from suffering—the feeling that pain will never end—to hope—the solid belief that I am part of the Big Picture and will be okay. My personality is given to bouts of depression, and those times are when I most need gratitude.
When I am stuck in the mud of depression, gratitude reminds me that that there is more out there than my own pain or numbness. There are people who care. There are soft, fuzzy cats who seem to love me in their mysterious, feline ways. There is this comfy couch. There is a warm fireplace. There are the wonderful, gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest I love so much.
Look! I just made a gratitude list!
Five things for which I am grateful, even when things are hard.
I am grateful for all five, and tomorrow, I could add another five, and another the day after, and another the day after that… And then maybe at some point soon, I might extend my list to ten things.
Lists, Lists, Lists!
So with this extended list, the ten-things-for-which-I-am-grateful list, I have developed a significant spiritual practice. In my book, Your Journey Toward Wisdom, I talk about starting with a tiny, tiny practice, and then letting that sink in. And then building on that practice.
So start with three. Start with three things for which you are grateful today. Try not to say your spouse, or your friends, or your mother every day. Really try to dig into what is your gratitude for today. No matter how small or silly your list may seem to you. Here, I’ll do a whole one:
- My wife is coming home in three and a half days. (She’s been away for six!)
- I really am grateful for that fireplace, though I haven’t turned it on yet.
- My cell phone. NASA put people on the moon with less computer power than my tiny little phone has. It does so much for me.
- My physical therapist. My mobility is improving, and it’s improving because of what she’s teaching me.
- The food I have for while my wife is gone. Yummy!
- My bright red coffee press. Warm, effective, and beautiful!
- My fuzzy orange blanket on my lap.
- The nap I’ll take after lunch (even though I slept in until almost 7)
- The Peruvian alpaca wrap my friend John brought me—it’s rainbow, like the macaw!
- And, I must admit, though I’m not a huge fan…the Cubs won the World Series I mean, 108 years?! Something like that, right?
Today, I seem interested in warm things—wraps, blankets, fireplaces. Maybe I should have worn something with long sleeves? But I didn’t, and so this is my list.
And gratitude lists aren’t the only kinds of lists I find helpful.
Task lists, reminder lists, pro-con lists, dreaming lists…these are all useful tools for spiritual development. Which is, after all, the development of a Self. Or as a. Powell Davies said, the growing of a soul.
Next piece is on the Examination of Consciousness, or the Examen. Check it out, Jesuit fans!