Philosophy

Unconditional Gratitude

I have mixed feelings about gratitude lists.

Yes, I know that they can help me stay positive, and help me to keep my focus on what I do have, on the good things in my life.

However, most “gratitude” is comparative.  We look around and are grateful that we have it better than the next person.

I might have a low income, but at least I’m not homeless like the man under the overpass.

I might have a child with autism, but at least she doesn’t have health problems like my friend’s child.

I might have experienced trauma, but at least I don’t have debilitating PTSD like the guy down the street.

Being grateful that our suffering is not as bad as someone else’s, does not seem like true gratitude, to me.  At the very least, it is negative and pitying.

Another issue I have with gratitude lists, is that they cherry-pick which of our experiences we approve of, and which ones we banish from our minds.

For example, I could write this gratitude list:

  1.  I have a loving family and a very intelligent daughter.
  2. I finally have a career that I not only enjoy, but LOVE!
  3. My parents live close and are very involved in Iliana’s life.
  4. Iliana goes to a wonderful school, in an excellent program.
  5. I have many close friends down here, including two good friends from Michigan

However, that is not the entire story.  Simply focusing on the positives, denies the other, less pleasant aspects of my life, which are still just as real and just as relevant:

  1.  I am a sexual assault survivor.
  2. I have dealt with significant emotional challenges, including self-harm and a suicide attempt.
  3. My daughter has a disability  that impacts every aspect of her life.
  4. We are still getting back on our feet financially, after the events of last year, and are using public assistance to help us do that.
  5. I have a strong tendency toward co-dependent relationships and tend to run away from people before we can get too close.

One list grabs your attention more, but they both are equally true and relevant in my life!  And before you fall into the trap of comparative gratitude and start feeling sorry for me, know this:  I am grateful for the items on both lists!

You can’t choose which experiences to be grateful for, and which experiences to reject.  Because they all happened.  And you have the opportunity to grow from all of them, if you choose to accept it.

Here is an example.

Some time ago, I was in therapy, processing a traumatic event from adolescence.  The details don’t matter.  What matters is that this was a story I had only told to two other people, and my therapist and I were both emotionally spent by the time I was done.  I said, “I’ve thought about this every day for the past 25 years, and there has to be something good that has come from it.”  My therapist, remaining professional but definitely affected, said very quietly, “Yes, there has to be something.”

At my next session, we were discussing self-esteem, and she asked me what I liked about myself.  I said that a lot of my strengths had come from that traumatic time in my life.  Through tears, I then passionately listed everything I love about myself, and how it had come from that painful time.  I was finding true gratitude.

While comparative gratitude leads us to separate others from ourselves and use pity to distance ourselves from suffering, true gratitude can help us feel more connected to those around us and make us more able to help them through their journies.  While selective gratitude leads us to deny a significant aspect of our situation, true gratitude helps us to remain hopeful and stay strong through the most difficult of times.

The past year was one of the most difficult experiences of my life, and it was through that trial that I learned the power of true gratitude.

While I was in the thick of the situation, it was not helpful for me to compare my situation to those that other people faced.  My brain was stuck in survival mode, and thinking about other people’s suffering only led me to feel more hopeless.  I tried to cherry pick things to be grateful for, but doing so just ignored the elephant in the room.  I tried to even find hope that my situation would eventually be over, but I was unable to do so.

It was at one of our 6 am conversations, when I told my yoga teacher about my hopelessness.  Her response was, “Don’t look for the light at the end of the tunnel.  Look for the lessons that you are supposed to learn.”

Shifting this mindset, helped me to shift into a mindset of true gratitude.  I did learn lessons–valuable, powerful lessons.  While it is true that I could have learned the lessons differently, the reality is that I did not.  I learned them through my journey, and at this point I would not change a thing about it.

So today, in honor of Thanksgiving in the US, I am sharing with you, my gratitude list.  These are the lessons I learned through my journey over the past year:

1.   We are all in this together.

From my yoga teacher, who kept getting up early enough to go to class at 6 am, to the friend who got me involved with union that could actually help me…to the union rep who did what she could, to the co-workers who heard about my situation and offered their support…to the administators and co-workers from my former job back in Michigan, who helped me make the changes in this next leg of my journey…to all of my new bosses and co-workers, who have been nothing but supportive.  We don’t live in a vacuum, and we are all here to support each other.  When I was in the thick of my situation, I once commented that I had never felt more connected.

2.  There is a danger in not understanding your gifts.

There was one person involved in my situation, who very much had a mentor role in my life.  I definitely had a “friend crush” on her, and with good reason!  She could light up a room, just by entering it, and she always listened, then said just the right thing to make everything better.  I felt so relieved when I saw her as my situation was worsening, because I knew she had been an ally in the past and could help me.

However, this person reacted out of fear.  She did all she could to “protect” herself, often at my expense.  Any relationship we had was destroyed, and her actions led to my situation continuing and spiralling out of hand.

The tragedy is that this person has a gift.  Her passion, and her ability to brighten a room and put people at ease, could help her in any job, in any situation.  However, she shrunk away and fell into survival mode, because she did not realize how powerful these gifts are.  Instead of shining her light to the world, she is fighting to keep herself employed in a job that likely does not even allow her to fully express her gifts.

3.  The way others treat us is often a reflection of the way we treat ourselves.

My situation is not my “fault.”  It is not my fault that I was hurt.

However, I never believed that I was capable, mature, or socially aware.  As a result, I started a pattern of allowing people to throw me under the bus, long before I ended up in the situation that I was in last year.  I did not self-advocate, because I did not believe I was worthy of being heard.  I did not walk away from my situation, because I did not believe that I could make it.

It wasn’t my fault.  But the situation would have played out very differently if I had believed in and valued myself.

4.  I have a voice.

Prior to my situation, I always believed that everyone else’s truth was more valid than my own. If someone disagreed with me, I would concede, because I assumed they were automatically “right.”  This led to a lot of the issues in #3.

5.  The path is easier when you clarify what you want.

Before the last school year started, we talked about the Law of Attraction in my 6 am yoga class.  I dove straight in, meditating on my “goal” everyday.  I wrote out a manifesto, proclaiming that I would be successful professionally, that my classroom would be a model classroom, and I would be teacher of the year.  I set out to make this a reality: I bought a number of new items for my classroom, got a more professional haircut and color, and bought a new wardrobe.  I took my job much more seriously, going into the new school year, and I was ready to make it happen!

It didn’t happen.

And that is okay, because the scenario I thought I wanted, really was not what I wanted.  I assumed that because I have a Master’s degree, I should want to be a high-powered professional.  The reality is that I do not.  What I want is to eat dinner with my family every night.  I want to spend a lot of time with my daughter, while she is still at an age where she wants to spend time with me.  I want a slower lifestyle, where I have time to tend to my home and create a calm, love-filled space. I want to have the energy to cook.  I want a flexible job, where my unique skill set and personality are an asset and are valued.  I want a job where I am free from the “rat race.”

I did not think I was “allowed” to desire all of that.  And now all of that is what I have.

6.  You learn more from those who speak up, than from those who are silent.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  And sure enough, it did hurt when people I had thought were friends, simply averted their eyes and ignored what was going on.  And yet, at the same time, I understood.  They were afraid of making waves, afraid of engaging in a losing battle.  They were simply trying to keep their heads down and do their jobs.  It hurt, but I can’t say that I would not have done the same in their situation.

What I will remember more, are the friends who were not silent.  The friends who did all they could to help me stay hopeful throughout the nightmare.  The friends who spoke up, who advocated for me.  These friends are amazing human beings, and we should all aspire to be more like them.

7.  It is okay to feel however you feel.

Being able to sit with difficult emotions was one of the major lessons I learned last year.  Going through trauma is akin to going through the stages of grief.  During and after the situation, I would become angry, depressed, determined, exhausted, anxious and so on.  I learned to simply allow the waves of emotion to pass, letting go of them when the time was right.  If I needed to process it with someone, I would, and I would also allow time for me to process the emotions alone.

We are so quick to label, pathologize, and numb emotions.  Feeling upset–even fluctuating between emotions–is a completely “normal” response to trauma.  It is not a mental illness.  It is not anxiety, depression, or PTSD.  In fact, I am pretty sure that by allowing my emotions and processing them, I helped keep myself from developing more serious mental health issues.

8.  There is no such thing as “security.”

This lesson has repeated itself many times in my life.  I thought I had let go of the notion of “security” when I got rid of my house and traveled to Houston with a Volvo station wagon filled with possessions.  I thought moving onto a boat would lead to freedom.

And yet, there I was, spending 5 years in a job that I didn’t love, plagued by the same fears and caught up in the same drama.  Why did I do this?  Because the job seemed secure.  I thought we needed the income.  I feared the consequences of leaving under bad circumstances.  I was afraid of becoming unemployable.

And yet, after losing the income, we still made it.  I found references, and I created a new, wonderful reality that is better than anything I could have hoped for.  If there is “security,” it is in our own ability to survive and to make the best out of any situation.

9.  Everyone learns lessons the “hard” way, so there is no room for pity or judgement.

I have a confession to make.  I had reservations about writing this post.  Not because I think that my situation was “worse” than anyone else’s.  Not because I am ashamed of my experiences.  But because I was afraid that readers would respond with pity.

The problem with pity is that it separates us.  It is a way of distancing those who have faced challenges, because we are afraid to be too close to suffering (or past suffering).

There is no reason to feel sorry for anyone.  We’re all doing the best job that we can, playing the hand that we are dealt.  And when we pity a friend who is going through a hard time, we enable them to pity themselves.  And nothing is more paralyzing than self-pity.

When we refuse to react with pity, we trust in our friends’ abilities to make it through difficult situations.  We acknowledge that suffering is a part of the human condition, and that difficult stuff happens to all of us, at some point or another.  We fearlessly hold their hand and accompany them across the emotional minefield, and all the while, we refuse to let them sit down and wallow, because we trust in their ability to make it through.

Thank you, Cresting the Hill, for allowing me to crash your link party!  If you enjoyed this post, please take a look at some of the other links on that site!

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28 thoughts on “Unconditional Gratitude”

  1. Bethany, I appreciate you being vulnerable and sharing your experiences. I, too, experienced some significant trauma and loss in recent years and it has been a journey to find peace and emotional equilibrium. I practice gratitude from time to time, as I’ve read it rewires our neural pathways and, over time, helps us experience more happiness. I agree, however, that it’s most effective when our gratitude is sincerely felt. I wish you all the best.

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  2. Bethany – so much of what you say resonates with me. Thank you for sharing so beautifully what I’ve so often tried to share. I think so much of the ‘second ‘list’ life events are what make us ‘US’ — and this is why I have ‘no regrets’. And the thing that has often driven me crazy when I have fallen on hard times, is people try to say things like “God will bless you – you’ll find a job/things will get better” as if God doesn’t love and bless those who are on public assistance, homeless, unemployed. Thanks again for very thought-provoking insights. #MLSTL

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    1. Exactly, Janet. The thing we often forget is that everyone has a second list. Nobody gets off the hook with that. It surprises me when people don’t understand that it is possible to be in a challenging place financially, but still be happy. We don’t have a lot of money, but we are very excited about the holidays!

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  3. A truly insightful and honest post, Bethany. I learnt much and nodded along to so many of your points. I absolutely agree that the whole gratitude thing, especially on the internet, is often taken too lightly and ends up causing more harm than good. Your post levels the playing field and gives a much wider view. Thanks for commenting on my post earlier and yes, I’m here from #MLSTL too. Sharing this post on my SM 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Johanna. On the Internet, it is so easy to create this illusion of a “perfect” life. Of course I don’t post pictures of my daughter having a meltdown, or articles about my latest petty fight with my husband! And while I love a good book and a cozy cup of coffee as much as the next person, I also love how I stop in my tracks at least once a day and think, “OMG…my life has changed SO much!”

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  4. Bethany I’m so glad you asked to crash our party – it’s a beautiful and heartfelt post and I can relate to a lot of what you’ve written. I too was stuck in a job that was sucking the life out of me until I finally got brave enough to leave. I have doubted my worth all my life and it’s an ongoing battle to claim what I’m entitled to – and to finally work less and enjoy life more.
    There is always going to be suffering in the world, there will be times when we do the right thing by ourselves and by others – and also times where we fail. It’s all a learning curve and as long as we’re moving forward step by step then we’re growing and maturing and fighting the good fight (and that’s what life is really all about isn’t it?)
    Feel free to crash MLSTL any time you have a suitable old or new post – and I’ve shared this on my SM 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Leanne! I think I have definitely found my tribe at MLSTL. Thank you for letting me “crash” the party, LOL!

      It is really hard to avoid perfectionism as we go through our challenges, isn’t it? I really could add that as another lesson that I have learned…and am still learning!

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  5. Hi, Bethany – I literally just finished writing a guest post on ‘Gratitude Writing’ when I opened your blog. Your writing here is extremely powerful. Your point about ‘Unconditional Gratitude’ is so true. An article on ‘The Grateful Brain’ (Psychology Today) states: “Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don’t have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.” Your blog post brings this point to life perfectly. Thank you for sharing this so openly.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! ❤ I have found that comparative gratitude leads to pity, while true gratitude acknowledges that while we all suffer, we all can find joy. This leads to a greater level of compassion and understanding when we do give to others who are experiencing hardships.

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  6. I like your take on gratitude, Bethany. Too often when I see someone’s gratitude list it is actually a ‘bragging’ list. And those life events that shape us into strong, resiliant individuals are often the tough ones. I may not feel grateful for the experience while I’m going through it, but on the other side of it, I can recognize the gratitude. Thank you for sharing the deeper meaning of gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving! #MLSTL

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  7. Bethany this is such an honest post that really made me think. As someone who has been through more than their fair share of trauma along the way, I can understand exactly what you’re saying. There are some great lessons in your gratitude list. Thanks for trusting us with your thoughts #MLSTL Will share

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  8. Hi Bethany, I love this post and your definition of True Gratitude. We get so caught up sometimes with buzz words like ‘Gratitude’ and ‘Thankful’ that we don’t really dig below the surface comments like being thankful for family and friends. When words become ‘trends’ they can lose their meaning. Thank you for reminding us about true gratitude and sharing at #MLSTL. It is lovely to have you as part of the group and I wish you and your family a very happy Thanksgiving. xx

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    1. Thank you, Sue. I’ve struggled with the “gratitude” trend for a long time, and writing this really helped me make peace with it, and find my own joy. Thank you for allowing me to crash the party at #MLSTL! It’s an honor to be a part of the group!

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  9. This is an outstanding post, Bethany. Years ago I was a teacher at a Head Start school, in Maine. I had co-workers go after my job, just because they didn’t like me. At the time I didn’t feel like I had any support from friends, or even the administration. Fortunately my husband Knew I thing or two, about the law, and was able to help me save my job. The whole experience though, took a huge toll on my self-esteem. Looking back, though, I am grateful for the experience, that gave me the strength, that I never knew I had. Thank-you for the powerful insight into gratitude.

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  10. Bethany, I have always thought that comparative gratitude is wrong on so many levels. Your post really illuminates the difference between comparative gratitude and what you call “true gratitude.” Lots to think about here! Thanks!

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