Can Gratitude Keep Us Stuck?
by Ilona Fried
Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude!
Has it become a New Age platitude? A measure of emotional fitness or barometer of spiritual correctness? Gratitude appears in memes in my Facebook newsfeed and in e-mails from spiritual teachers and health professionals alike. Gratitude is touted as an antidote to malaise, dissatisfaction, mild depression and other ailments of contemporary existence. At times it’s even described as the sine qua non of the spiritual life, the basic building block for ultimately raising one’s consciousness and vibration and cultivating contentment that is steady rather than situational.
To be able to genuinely feel and express gratitude is a deeply human and humble act that does not come naturally to everyone. And, there are moments of trial, challenge or heartbreak where it might be healthier to cry, vent, dig a ditch (and fill it again) or otherwise release energy rather than saying that one is grateful to have a roof over head and food on the table. A friend recently shared those words with me, and given the disappointments she’d faced, they lacked resonance, relevance and conviction. The platitude telegraphed resignation rather than resilience, stuckness rather than the more open quality of vulnerability. Had she cried, cursed or let loose a sarcastic joke, my heart would have cracked open more widely. While repeating a bromide allowed her to keep her composure, a choice I fully understand, it also kept me at arm’s length.
Some of us who complained as children were told by caregivers to shut up and be grateful that we had a roof over our heads and food on the table, unlike starving kids in other parts of the world. I associate that particular “gratitude platitude” with a lack of intimacy, the repression of authentic expression and the frustration of a parent who was unable to listen to the child, either because of overwhelm or because his or her own needs as a youngster had not been met. As adults, we become our own caregivers. As we heal, we reparent our younger selves who had legitimate grievances, desires and needs that might have been shoved aside under the guise of gratitude, or minimized or ignored because they were not as extreme as the unmet needs of children on distant continents, in preceding generations or even in our own families.
Such straw man comparisons, if not actively countered, can teach us to settle rather than seek out what inspires spontaneous, heartfelt gratitude, not the mind created variety. These comparisons can set us up for stuckness or tolerating situations which, while not necessarily life threatening, do not allow us to thrive. Ersatz gratitude can convince us that everything is mostly OK so we are less inclined to risk investigating what makes us feel alive. We might talk ourselves into staying in a comfortable, even if unfulfilling, rut. Remaining too long can dull our instincts. When we eventually wake up and clue into how we’ve limited ourselves, gratitude might not be the most effective or quickest exit strategy.
A few months ago, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert posted a mini-essay called “Not This”, describing what she calls the “terrifying” moment when you realize that you’ve ended up in the wrong place or the wrong life, without a Plan B. I’ve been in that situation more than once. I have left jobs without a new one lined up, ended romances before another suitor appeared on the horizon, relinquished a coveted art studio before finding a better one and even moved to other countries to heed the call of my soul rather than scrunch myself into a box. In my experience, focusing on gratitude in those moments has not helped me achieve sufficient “escape velocity” to overcome fear-based inertia and leave situations that were either toxic, stultifying or stale and embark upon a soul restoring adventure.
My most profound moments of genuine gratitude have arisen spontaneously after I’ve taken a leap into a new unknown. With my senses and sense of self refreshed, I can more easily enter “beginner’s mind” and feel a fundamental gratitude for being alive, sensing the wind on my cheeks and savoring even the humblest of foods. And, since I can’t plunge myself into novelty all the time, I’m deliberately cultivating the capacity to refresh myself and experience more gratitude while in one place. My attempts include learning different skills, immersing myself in nature, and finding new ways to interact with familiar environments. My camera helps me document moments that fill me with delight and gratitude, such as spotting a great blue heron perched on a tree or witnessing a fleeting, prismatic sunset.
Perhaps true gratitude is more available to me when I’m moving, exploring and interacting with the natural world rather than being bombarded by the word on my computer screen, discussing it with another, or even keeping a gratitude journal as many of those e-mails recommend. Maybe the ultimate goal is to embody gratitude spontaneously, to create a life in which we feel it deeply in our cells rather than having to think, write or even photograph our way towards it. I’m a long way from that vision. Yet, to demand of ourselves that we be grateful to meet a spiritual ideal when life is serving crap sandwiches or, worse, if we keep making our own crap sandwiches, can be counterproductive. Sometimes we need to channel our pain and frustration into new modes of action or follow our intuition out of our comfort zone. We need to hit the eject button and fly on faith rather than keep ourselves grounded in gratitude, especially if it’s a platitude.