December 14, 2014

How to Feel Grateful when Everything is Awful.

duck, hard life, frustration, depression

I am grateful for…

Ask me on a good day, and I’ll rattle off all the things I’m supposed to: A roof over my head, food in the refrigerator, work, car, health, family, still breathing….

Ask me on a bad day, and I’ll rattle off these same things, but they’ll come with a load of negative qualifiers. Suddenly, all I see is scarcity and reasons to be afraid.

The truth is that listing off the items for which I should be grateful feels hollow.

Things could be worse—I am well aware. But I’m also well aware of how they could be better, and relativism only gets human beings so far.

Just because the guy next to me is suffering from a different problem doesn’t ever seem to detract entirely from the fact that I’m suffering, too. I’m expected to judge my station, in one direction or another, through an infinite series of contrasts.

Either I end up having to compare myself to the indigent, starving or terminally ill just so I can feel good about my place in the world, or I compare myself to all the people around me who seem to have it better, which provides ample justification for these feelings of indignation and self-pity.

I ask myself, Why can’t I have what these other people have—the things that ought to be unalienable rights for all of us: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

First, take note of the word “pursuit,” not, “promise”—I make the mistake of treating it like it’s some contractual obligation that the universe isn’t fulfilling. Plus, the value of life—as I see so often in the news lately—is evaluated by standards I cannot embrace on any level by those put in charge of seeing to its protection.

Overall, liberty begins to seem more and more like an illusion.

I feel trapped by my circumstances, my agenda, my body, my gender, my race, by cultural expectations—I am not walking around with a true sense of freedom. If I want to feel grateful, I have to compare myself to people in prison or in countries where women have fewer rights in order to put my suffering in context. (And then try to ignore the fact that I don’t even have to leave my own country to look for examples of the severely subjugated, powerless, downtrodden, de-humanized masses.)

Gratitude means hard work spent figuring out how I can still be happy even from inside one of society’s little checkboxes. In the end, what this means is that somebody’s lawn will always have the greener grass—and the fact that I can see it makes me miserable.

So what am I grateful for? I mean, for real. Not the automatic response, the things I’m supposed to say.

The truth is that I’m grateful for the small breaks in the storm because without those, I have no hope of ever seeing the things in my life that are of value.

These small breaks allow me to feel something other than sadness, fear, anger, need, or confusion. I come up for air, and it’s relief. I take it all in. It may only last a moment. The smallest, most unexpected thing calls it into being.

It’s a touch, a connection with what is beyond the self:

I am driving on the highway and there is the full moon.

A child tucks her hand in mine to cross the street.

This apple pie tastes good.

I can feel the vibration of the passing train through my couch cushions.

You pull me close to you.

The duck dives headfirst in the lake, his webbed feet paddling the air.

Cattails bend in the wind.

A man tells a joke, and I laugh.

That’s it. There’s no seeking it. I never know when that moment will come, or what it will be, and it does not matter because suddenly it is moving through me and I understand, for that instant, the best way to give myself over to everything.

That is what I’m grateful for when everything seems so awful—that there are tiny windows through which I can see how the light and dark play off of each other, how ridiculous and beautiful it all is, how courageous we are, how wretched, amazing, absurd and unspeakably precious.

And there’s no escaping it.

Nothing is going to make it all better all the time.

This moment is really bad, and this next moment is such completely unexpected relief, and the one doesn’t have to fix the other or solve the world’s problems or do anything but be.

But I’ll want it to do more because it’s so beautiful, because it lets me see my true self.

With all my heart, I’ll keep wishing to extend those moments—to clasp them tight to me even though by their very nature they cannot be held.

Yet, I’m beginning to believe that the most lasting relief comes when I stop needing to classify and compare in order to gauge my levels on some happiness scale. When I can make peace with whatever comes my way, then the window through which I’ve been glimpsing the interplay of light and dark becomes a doorway.

Maybe it leads to a place where I could honestly be grateful for all of it.

Everything is as it should be each moment, and these moments are always changing in the most unexpected ways, motivating me to take a stand, take action, make a difference, keep folding and unfolding, find my voice.

Good and bad—all these labels fall away.

I could be thankful for everything because it’s all in service to the same end—because I’m always in service…to you, to me, and to reality.




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Author: Stephanee Killen

Editor: Emma Ruffin

Image: Daniel R. Blume/Flickr

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