Gratitude practices like making lists of things we are thankful for can provide a sense of lightness and hope. Taking a moment to pause and reflect on what is going right in our lives rather than focusing on what we are missing can be a beautiful practice...until it isn’t.
Gratitude practices have an undercurrent of shame for those times that we just can’t summon genuine feelings of thanks for what we have.
Years ago, pre-mindfulness, I was in a slump. A pretty nasty one too. I had heard about gratitude practices and I tried them. For a brief time, the novelty of the activity sparked a few extra neurotransmitter doses but eventually I came crashing back down into my depression, except this time I had a crappy list about how great my life was. All it did was make me feel like a spoiled, useless piece of garbage. I mean, there are people without enough food to eat and I couldn’t muster a smile for my safe, privileged existence.
There is a line we walk when we practice gratitude, and it's important that we don't use this practice as a righteous means to stomp out grieving processes or as a way to deny ourselves and others the freedom to feel angry or sad.
Genuine gratitude comes from within. It can never be bullied out of us. Forced gratitude is based in fear and shame, and is often used as a means of control or to feel superior over others and, weirdly, also over ourselves. We think that maybe, if we are grateful enough, we can conquer the dreaded downer within.
And that’s the litmus test for genuine gratitude: if it makes you feel shamed, guilty or scared, it’s probably bullshit and you don’t need to be grateful for it.
For a short time, looking at how another person is living with a downcast, judgmental gaze can be extremely satisfying. Unfortunately all this does is build up a false sense of our own self-worth.
We can never say with certainty that had we been handed another person’s lot in life, including their genetics and their lived experience, we would have turned out any differently. We are such complex creatures, and we never know what will push one person to make a choice that we may consider just plain wrong. There is no such thing as righteous condemnation of another person’s choices.
But what happens when another person’s choices start to affect our lives? What if we just would unequivocally be better off if this person would just make a different choice?
First of all, tough shit. We cannot make other people do what we want them to. We cannot accommodate, punish or judge someone into changing in any authentic way. And if we love this person, this realization sucks. We actually have to love this person where they are, and sometimes this feels impossible.
But there is a silver lining here. When we are repeatedly hurt by another person’s choices, we can choose to change ourselves. Perhaps we learn to let go of our need to control the situation. Maybe we can part with the heavy load of shame that sometimes spurs our desires to change another person. Or maybe we can let go of the relationship altogether.
Not out of anger, or rage, or as an ultimatum, but out of self-preservation and, believe it or not, respect. We can respect another person and the journey they are on enough to give up our hold on them. We can respect others enough to give them the room to make their own decisions, even if that means we can’t be there with them as they do.