Gratitude, like the color black, looks good on everyone. Whether you are giving, receiving or just witnessing gratitude, it makes all parties fulfilled. Gratitude has only two natural enemies which are effectively eradicating it from our world: complaining, and bumper sticker philosophy spewed by the incessantly cheery. Real, meaningful gratitude is not a transaction between two people; it is not thanking someone or something. Meaningful gratitude is an exercise in perspective and the practice of acknowledging the realities beyond yourself that make a moment possible.
Complaining is the biggest threat to gratitude. Complaining, like a drug, provides instant gratification and oozes negativity and ugliness into the world as a byproduct of an easy fix. Like many others, I turn to the internet to blame my mood on anything except my own actions: some jagoff cut me off in traffic, my boss is a racist walrus-person, or my depression is clinical so I have a doctor’s note to be sad.
I find the release of complaining so delicious, and the reinforcement from my cohort online so self-righteously indulgent, that I am still surprised that it does not sustain me. Complaining to deal with sadness and frustration is like drinking salt water to quench my thirst; the need only grows deeper.
The solution is not simply to substitute complaining with a forced gratitude, but to practice deep and reflective gratitude. Nothing stokes the flames of my indignation more than an incessantly pleasant person who has never felt the despair it takes to actually tie a noose, trying to point out a silver lining to me. The pleasant will try to tell us real sufferers to be grateful for a beautiful day, or the opportunity practice loving your enemy. That bumper sticker philosophy makes gratitude comes off as authentically as the two hottest bitches in the club being nice to one another.
The upbeat will suggest, “Maybe he cut you off because he was truly in an emergency and you can be grateful that both of you arrived at your destination safely.”
“Oh really, Rachelle, I should just give this donkey show of a human being a pass to be a complete asshole because he might have some fictional emergency! Doing mental happiness aerobics is not going to fix the hole I just punched in my goddamn dashboard!”
Substituting a less frustrating thought never works. Gratitude is not finding the silver lining of a shit storm; gratitude is finding a deeper note of truth that reaches the resonant frequency of a shitty castle and you watch all the shit bricks crumble to the ground, leaving space for true happiness and positivity to grow and fill the void.
My struggles with depression and suicide are the perfect example of what I mean. I first started dealing with clinical depression when I was 16, and by the time I was 17 I already had my first suicide attempt under my belt, or rather hung by it. Since then, I’ve dealt with depressive episodes my entire life, and both complaining and bumper sticker philosophy prevented me from finding gratitude. As a white man, raised in upper middle class America, my mental health was the one area of life where I could complain that I had it worse than everyone else, and boy did I complain.
When people did not understand the depths of my depression, I was vindicated. They told me to just be happy, focus on the breeze on my skin, or the joy of juicy apple and their lack of understanding convinced me my pain was special.
As an adult, I spent years trying to find what there was to be grateful about my biological proclivity for depression, and it eluded me. For a long time I resigned myself to the understanding that happiness and sadness are diametrically opposed, so I can only know true happiness because I have known true despair. Even this did not make me friends with my depression. Recently, I figured out what to be grateful for that truly disarmed my pain and allowed hope and joy to grow in its wake.
I am truly grateful for the fact that I was born at a time and into a family that when I told my parents I was sad all of the time, they took me to see a doctor. A DOCTOR! Had I been born into a different family, they could have responded by telling me to suck it up and go beat up a nerd to make myself feel better. Had I been born 100 years earlier, they would have told me I didn’t have time to be sad because my double shift at the sulfur mine starts in 10 minutes. Had I been born 100 years before that, I would have been beaten for speaking out of turn to an adult. My parents listened to me describe depression in the words of a 16-year-old, and respected the problem enough to take me to see a fucking doctor.
Beyond that, I am grateful for being born in a time when a doctor actually knew what the hell was wrong with me and how to help. Between therapy and medication, I slowly came back around to not only withstanding life but enjoying it. Had I been born 100 years earlier the doctor would have measured my skull and told me my head was too big to be happy. Had I been born a woman, they would have told me my womb was wandering through my body causing hysteria. Had I been born 100 years before that, the barber would have just given me a good bleeding.
With this perspective, I have become a cordial neighbor with my depressive tendencies. I understand the role it plays in my life, and I understand how lucky I am to have survived it this long. I am truly grateful that I am living life with a biological proclivity for depression at this place and time in the world. The shit castle of my depression has crumbled and in its place a fulfilling life is starting to take hold.
Gratitude is not saying thank you, gratitude is acknowledging you could live a thousand lifetimes and never be able to thank all the factors you owe.