Thoughts on Gratitude, Featuring Keith
Throughout my life I have had a complicated relationship with the concept of gratitude. As a young child I was told I had to be grateful because it was a form of religious worship. I was told I should be grateful in service of a higher power because it humbles us. However, as I grew older I found this form of gratitude to be dismissive at times. Being grateful for a divine presence did not adequately address the things in my life that were not so great. If I am grateful for a higher power for the things I have, should I also be resentful for a higher power for not providing the things I don’t have? Or for inflicting upon me the things I don’t want?
To make meaning out of this paradox I jumped to an alternate view of gratitude. Rather than being grateful in service of a higher power, I shifted focus to being grateful in service of people. This shift made sense to me because people are present and tangible throughout my life. When I am grateful for other people, they are more likely to provide support and community. When I am grateful to myself, I am more likely to set and accomplish goals. However, I found yet another flaw in this approach to gratitude: it is highly transactional. I was essentially paying people, and myself, for their service to me, with gratitude. I found this problematic because people are not always capable of providing support, and I am not always capable of accomplishing the goals I have set. Yet, I still felt a need to be grateful to myself and others, even when I am not getting anything in return for my gratitude.
This leads me to my current approach to gratitude. I am grateful because it is less stressful than its diametric counterpart: desire. When I first began practicing yoga and mindfulness I was introduced to the idea that human suffering stems from want and desire. This is not to say there is anything wrong with desire, it is a natural part of the human experience. But desire is a focus on the things we do not have. Unpleasant emotions like jealousy, greed, and entitlement become more likely while in pursuit of the things we want. Also, when we fail to get the things we want, feelings like resentment, bitterness, and contempt become more frequent. So, by shifting the focus away from what we don’t have, and onto the things we do have, we automatically reduce the likelihood of experiencing these unpleasant emotions. In fact, we increase the likelihood of experiencing more enjoyable emotions like admiration, appreciation, awe, and curiosity.
My point here is not to advocate for one form of gratitude over another. At different points in my life each of these forms have served me well. My hope is that this can provide an example of how gratitude can take different forms, at different times, for different people, and in different situations. As we move through this holiday break, I hope that we all can find a way to make gratitude work for us in our own unique ways.