What Gratitude is Not

The resilience that gratitude makes possible is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to help others who are going through difficulties.

I’ve recently been posting a lot about gratitude and cognitive reframing. In this post I want to say a few words about what gratitude is not.

It’s important to emphasize that true gratitude is not a type of Pollyanna, everything-is-happy optimism. Sometimes in the self-help literature, people are encouraged to just assert they are happy even when they aren’t. There are some interesting studies showing that for certain types of people this false optimism not only doesn’t help, but actually makes them more miserable. So gratitude isn’t just gritting your teeth and saying things are fine when they aren’t.  True gratitude is the opposite of this since it involves acknowledging and accepting one’s sufferings, but then interpreting those sufferings in a spiritual way.

We can get so focused on not complaining – and that’s good, we shouldn’t complain – but there is a legitimate place for acknowledging what’s wrong especially when we’re confronted with evil. To accept our sufferings, and to reframe them in a spiritual way, presupposes we’ve first acknowledged that things are not what they ought to be. And for a lot of people, that is a big step. It’s easy, especially in our culture, to have a picture perfect idea of our life and to project that out to the world. Sometimes before we can get to the point of reframing we have to admit that things are a mess.

When Viktor Frankl told about the inhuman conditions of Auschwitz, he accurately identified the depths of evil to which man had stooped. Yet he was also able to put an accurate valuation on what is good in life, and in so doing he came to understand that what is good is larger and more lasting than what is evil. What we have to be grateful for is stronger than what we have to grumble about.

So true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within an overall positive context. When we do that, research shows that we actually become more resilient to what would otherwise be the debilitating effects of suffering.

The psychologist M. Scott Peck pointed out that sometimes this very act of accepting that life is difficult has the potential to ease our burden, for it enables us to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise overwhelm us. I’d like to share a passage from his famous book The Road Less Traveled, that emphasizes this:

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it…. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy. They voice their belief, noisily or subtly, that their difficulties represent a unique kind of affliction that should not be and that has somehow been especially visited upon them…”

Here’s how this relates to gratitude. Only when we accept that life is difficult, only when we come to terms with the fact that we have no right to be comfortable, happy or prosperous, can we truly be grateful. For once we’ve accepted that life is difficult and suffering normal, only then can we begin to perceive any small amount of joy or comfort as pure gift, like the prisoners in Auschwitz were able to do when they saw a sunset.

On the other hand, when we do not accept that life is difficult, but approach life with a false optimism that can’t really come to grips with the reality of pain and complexity of the world, then it’s hard not to fall into the twin evils of sentimentalism or cynicism. Both sentimentalism and cynicism are rampant in our culture, and they especially permeate our visual arts.

Sentimentalism fails to confront the reality of pain in our world through an escapism in which everything becomes rosy. Sentimentalism numbs us to being able to feel suffering, vulnerability and pain. It presents an overly-simplistic view of the world that has no framework for understanding the darker and more complex side of life.

Cynicism, on the other hand, recognizes what is wrong but also has no framework for understanding it, no framework for being able to see purpose and meaning in what is happening. To the cynic, evil becomes a type of cruel joke. Instead of becoming numb to pain, cynicism looks evil in the eye and despairs.

Both sentimentalism and cynicism effect a hardening in us, a tightening of the heart, a process of emotional numbing.

Gratitude is the answer to both these approaches since it releases us to lean into the pain. It releases us to stand face to face with the pain, ambiguity and complexity of life and not despair. Because remember, when we use gratitude to reframe our sufferings, we are not denying that the suffering is taking place, nor are we painting a sentimental or escapist gloss over the difficulties. Rather, we are choosing to perceive the larger context in which that suffering is taking place: a context that provides occasions for gratitude regardless of what is happening around us.

In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to be there for others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain as a way to protect ourselves.

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Think of the way, as a culture, we insulate ourselves against suffering all the time. We have institutions that work hard to bracket off the dying and dead from us so we never have to encounter them. When I first attended an Eastern Orthodox funeral service and saw the dead body there, it was weird for me because I had never seen, let alone touched, someone who was dead. But at the same time I thought: this is good, because death and dying are not something we should cut ourselves off from. I’m told that in much of Europe now when someone is about to die, the normal practice is to dose them up with enough morphine to make them go unconscious so the family doesn’t have to deal with the process of dying. The potentially painful final moments before death, the last words, the dying person’s knowledge that he or she is about to go – all of this is uncomfortable and can be avoided by a medically-induced coma.

But it isn’t just with death that we work hard to preserve our comfort. Think of the way we have institutions whose sole purpose is to keep us from having to interact with those who are handicapped or mentally retarded. Or think of how listening to someone’s problems, and extending empathy and compassion, has been institutionalized, relegated to a special class of professionals.

In our comfort-oriented culture its second-nature to us to avoid those who are suffering, those who are lonely, those whose lives are messy and filled with pain. These are the people who need our love the most. But instead of going through their pain with them we numb ourselves to the pain around us so we don’t have to confront it. People are screaming out for love, acceptance, belonging, empathy, and when it isn’t there for them, our society offers all the equipment a person needs to numb themselves. All the mental noise, the information-saturation, the distraction technologies – these can be numbing devices so we never have to deal with hurt, confusion and pain – whether in ourselves or others.

One of the many things I appreciate about the work of Brené Brown is her emphasis that you cannot selectively numb emotion. When our pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the pain and hurt happening around us, and even happening to us, what we’re doing is we’re also inadvertently numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, the result is that we’re reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

And this just emphasizes again how different gratitude is from escapism and false optimism. Gratitude gives us the power to look pain straight in the eye and instead of despairing to rejoice. Gratitude gives us the power to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us.  And because of this, a grateful person has more resilience to suffering. I’m not making this up because psychologists working in this area are discovering that gratitude builds a person’s resilience, adaptability and flexibility in the face of suffering. The resilience that gratitude makes possible is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to help others who are going through difficulties. Instead of pushing people away because we can’t cope with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves so we aren’t touched by another person’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize and identify with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, “rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.”

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