If we want to be happy, we should be grateful.
Most of us have heard this message in a hundred different ways.
We are often reminded to “stay in the present” and to “be aware of all the good” around us. We are even encouraged to catalogue our daily gratitudes and live each day in constant search of items for our list, no matter how small. This is the so-called “attitude of gratitude.”
Well, I agree that this is one way to stay in the present. I have kept a gratitude journal for most of the last two decades. Ever since reading Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach in 1995, I have always come back to happiness through gratitude.
I have learned so much about myself, and the world around me, while looking for the good parts of my life. There have been many days when looking for the good was a challenge and my saving grace was truthfully being able to list these three things: the simplicity of a deep breath, the ability to love, and the day being over.
But recently I have come to understand that I owe it my authentic self to focus beyond my gratitude and be deeply thankful. I am realizing that the lesson I have to learn in my life is not only about gratitude and expressing my love. Those come naturally to me and always have.
Even on the days when my deep depression had me questioning if the world would be a better place without me, I could still see, ironically, all I had to be grateful for. Unfortunately, on those days, a three-page list of gratitudes was not enough to deal with my other feelings. I have learned that being in touch with my obvious gratitude was only addressing part of me and my truth. I needed to direct my focus to the other parts if I wanted things to change.
But what about the days when I was really sad? I was grateful for breakfast. The days when I was pissed off? I was grateful for the flowers in my neighbor’s garden. The days I heard, “I want a divorce,” “Your son is very sick,” “Your lab report does say it is cancer,” “Your mom will probably not make it through the night.”
On those days I hid behind my gratitude. I told myself any number of things I still had on my list so I could avoid facing what I was losing, or what was causing my stress, or what I really wanted to say or do. Gratitude was easier for me.
I have learned that my challenge is going beyond gratitude for all is right in my life to really make peace with what is causing me pain. When I am in an argument with my spouse, instead of just being grateful I am married, I am learning to really see why I am feeling so frustrated. I sit in the frustration of not seeing eye-to-eye and try to figure out I need to learn in that moment. I may then be thankful for the lesson, but I am not using gratitude as a bandage to cover a festering wound.
When I am heartbroken because I miss my friend and we cannot talk, I give in to the tears instead of just being grateful for the friendship. I allow myself to wonder why this hurts so much. I try to delve into what I am missing and what I need. I try to figure out if there is anything I can give myself in the meantime. And ultimately, I find I may be thankful for the deep affection this friendship brings me and that I love enough to miss. But I stop and feel the bad before I simply default to the good.
See, I want my gratitudes to mean something more than, “I noticed a sunset today” if I have spent the day wrestling with my self-worth. Sunsets are perfect for some days, but on other days I need to dig deeper.
I want to miss my son and feel the void his absence brings before I tell myself to be grateful he is happy in college. Sitting in the void rather than rushing through it has allowed me to touch a deeper gratitude—that I am really thankful that he and I have developed a common respect and appreciation for one another now that we are not together all the time.
I was recently asked to join in a daily group text where we listed five gratitudes by nine p.m. each night. I was able to rattle off mine whenever I remembered I needed to do them for the day. Finding those gratitudes was never a challenge. But about 10 days into it, I had a really rough day. I picked up my phone and I texted my five and read theirs and realized—this is not where I need to be right now.
I do not need to be reminded daily to “put on my happy face.” I need to be reminded that I can feel whatever it is I am feeling and find the deeper gratitude as it comes. I do not need “instant gratitude” anymore. I need instant, constant, consistent presence. I am just not content placing that to the side to list the good, if in the moment I am not even close to okay.
So I told them I was in a different space and that I was not going to be doing these daily gratitude texts anymore. I told them that my default, as they well know, is grateful and I needed to learn to move beyond that to where my struggle is.
That was obviously ungrateful of me. Since then two of the group have not spoke to me and the one has let me know how much the group is enjoying the daily texting and not “giving up” on doing it, how close they have become through this practice, and how incredible it is.
And I sat with all of that. I could have joined back in and been grateful they took me back. I could have said I was grateful they carried on without me and be happy for them. There was so much I could have listed and it would have even been true. But instead, I acknowledged to myself that I was really sad. I felt what it felt like to be on the outside of the group and all the memories of this happening growing up. I felt the anxiety knowing that I was upsetting others all because I didn’t want to “just be happy.”
And then I realized this was exactly right.
Beyond the gratitude, I didn’t want to “just be happy,” I wanted to be me. And so my honest thankfulness is that I know that now, and that means so much more than the iced coffee I would have listed that next day.
So I journal each day about however I feel, even if it is in the mess of chaos, and I wait for the thankfulness and peace that comes with really understanding.
“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” ~ Pema Chödrön
Author: Andrea Byford
Images: Instagram screengrab
Editors: Khara-Jade Warren; Emily Bartran