I have been thinking a lot about gratitude these past few days. If you’ve been reading this journal for a while, you probably remember I did a year-long series on gratitude in which I did weekly lists and lots and lots of posts related to the topic of gratitude. It was my effort to try and “clean up” my relationship with the concept of gratitude, because gratitude is one of the key factors of well-being but something I struggled with. I figured that if I started tuning in more to gratitude, and really FOCUSING on locking those moments in, I could change not only my relationship with the idea of gratitude, but also my level of happiness.
It worked, but it didn’t work.
And now the gratitude thing is coming up in teachings related to mindfulness and neuroscience and I find myself kind of banging up against it once again.
The other day I finished meditating and I was sort of floating around in the pool and watching the butterflies and and appreciating the warm water and the sunlight and I was really in a relaxed state of contentment and I found myself thinking “I should really be more grateful for all this.” Then I found myself cataloging all the things around me that could be considered good things, whether or not they pinged my radar, and trying to really force myself to focus on them and find some sort of feeling about them. I realized that trying so hard to cultivate gratitude was actually making me quite unhappy. I also realized that I’ve been doing that for the last decade or so, since gratitude hit my radar- trying *really* hard to cultivate gratitude.
I am CONSTANTLY in awe of things, and very often I find myself in a state of gentle appreciation. I savor things. I am aware of things. I notice and embrace things. Even when things suck, I’m still, like, “oh, look at that butterfly!!” Every day when I make my cup of tea, that first sip is just blissful. I feel a sense of deep relief when I sink into bed at night. I am deeply appreciative of my family and my little art studio and my amazing pets. What I am describing can be considered states of gratitude. But for me, those feelings and reactions that I describe differ from gratitude because the “gratitude” thing is too steeped in something else entirely- a deep obligation. Meaning: if you don’t feel it, there’s something broken, something wrong with you.
I’ll be honest- I have never felt truly comfortable with the word “gratitude”. I think it’s because when I was younger, the admonishment of “You should be grateful!!” was tossed around constantly by all the adults I came into contact with. I think it’s a cultural thing- I grew up in a second generation Italian-American family in New York in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Life advice was issued often and bluntly, and there was too much going on for anyone to sit and complain about anything, whether it was huge or small. If there was food on the table and a house to live in and a general sense of safety, that was more than enough. You just soldiered on and that was that.
But now that I’m a mom, I realize that telling someone, especially a kid, to be grateful for something is like telling someone a joke and ordering that person to genuinely laugh even if they don’t find any humor in it. The gratitude is either there or it isn’t. You can’t force someone to feel something they don’t. I understand sometimes a change in perspective can open a person’s eyes, but forcing gratitude for specific things just doesn’t work, and it sort of breeds contempt for the idea of gratitude. And I also understand that, like humor, gratitude arises more often for some people than others, and more naturally for some people than others.
For example, Grace needs to get weekly injections for her allergies and asthma. She goes to school, puts in a full day, then does sports, then is picked up and driven the 40 minutes to the doctor, sits in the crowded waiting room and waits for her turn, gets the shot (which can be painful, depending on the dose), sits there for another half hour so the doctor can make sure that she doesn’t have a reaction to the shot, gets back in the car, does the 40 minute drive home, and then has to tackle her homework and chores and everything else.
You know what? It sucks. It really does. For a lot of kids, getting a shot – any shot- is a nightmare. She has to do it every freakin’ week, and she’s done it since she was itty bitty.
I would never in a million years tell her to be grateful for any part of that process. It’s great that there is advanced allergy treatment available and it’s great that it allows her to do much more and live so much more comfortably, but there’s a big difference in asking her to understand why it’s necessary vs. telling her to be grateful for it. I openly acknowledge to her how much it sucks, and I allow her to acknowledge it and honor that. She never whines, rarely complains, but no one around here in under any sort of misconception that any part of the process is pleasant or something she has to view any differently than she does. She goes without complaining, and that, to me, is stellar. A+.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that I have more of an issue with the way the word “gratitude” has been used. It can be used very negatively, very critically, very hand-slappy. Or that gratitude is a shift in perspective on a particular thing that changes the way you see that thing forever and ever.
That’s not for me. To me, that “permanent” approach to gratitude is basically a form of attachment, which is something that can really negatively affect well-being. As much as I have spent my whole life resistant to change and desperate to find a way to circumvent it in any way possible (my goal was to find a good, stable way to live life and then SUPER GLUE it in place so that it wouldn’t go awry), in the last ten years I have come to appreciate change- especially the way I have changed. And will continue to change. And that includes my opinions of things, my perspective on life. For instance, I can feel a lot of gratitude for something when I’m 20 and then now at 42 it doesn’t resonate. A better example is the fact that there are a myriad of things that I’m grateful for now at 42 that didn’t even ping my radar when I was 20.
In neuroscience, there have been studies showing that there’s no FIXED self. Which is also the Buddhist philosophy. There’s no part of us that stays permanent and unchanging over time. We are basically giant organic oraganisms, and our brains are basically big vats of chemicals and firing neurons and connections that are changing *constantly*, so we, too, change drastically over our lives. And in doing so, our perspectives and ideas and opinions and goals and priorities shift along with our brains. Some parts of us change rapidly, some parts of us slowly evolve, all based on the part of our brain that is running that part of our show. Human beings are like advanced ecosystems onto themselves. Some parts change moment to moment, and some other parts have a slow evolution over 80+ years.
For years and years and years I was hung up on the idea of being a curator. It was my childhood dream, I went to college and studied Art History, but then I kind of found out that I couldn’t have that career and take care of my health. Curators are constantly on their feet, and that’s not an option for me. And I could blow off the advice of doctors and do it anyway, but it would only be a matter of time before my health would push its way back to the front of the line.
After college, I sat around and regretted not becoming a curator, even though I did everything I was supposed to do and it just wasn’t possible. And then I held on to the dream some more. Even though I sort of became more interested in MAKING art and studying other things, I was always, like, “well, I should be a curator and I blew the chance. And if I were a curator I would be happier because I would have fulfilled my dram.”
Then I realized: it’s okay to NOT be the person who had that dream. It’s okay that the particular “dream” is no longer for me. I changed. I grew. I evolved. The truth is that if I had a chance to do college over again, the truth is I would choose art school over museum studies. I love all those things, but I am *passionate* about painting. When I was 18, i was *passionate* about working in a museum. Things have changed- not much (art is still my obsession, and I still adore museums and want to pretty much move into one), but there’s a subtle difference. My focus has changed. And I realize that in order to keep evolving and experiencing and living a full life, it means I need to honor those little subtle changes in focus and be open to them.
And that goes for “gratitude” as well. I’m kind of letting go of the idea of a fixed, deep sense gratitude and trying to remind myself over and over and over to focus on appreciating. On noticing. My style of gratitude is whatever lifts my spirits and makes me happy, even if just a moment. It doesn’t need to be something deep, or heavy, or life-changing. It doesn’t need to lock in. It isn’t about *grasping*. I don’t need to remember and record anything that pings a little bit of joy in me. I can just let it be what it is and then let it pass and know I experienced it.