Caution: Abusing Gratitude Could Be Life Threatening
As we shift our thoughts and energy from Halloween costumes and candy to Thanksgiving and times with family, I thought this post that I found on my friend Kelly Flanagan’s blog UnTangled was particularly timely.
[Credit for featured photo above: Jamie In Bytown via Compfight cc]
Until a few years ago, I lived like every resource was about to run out. I worried I’d never have enough money, enough stuff, enough certainty, enough safety, enough strength, enough love, enough acceptance. Mostly, I worried I’d never be enough…
I tried to believe my worries were bogus—or, at least, a waste of time—but the knowledge wasn’t getting into my heart. So, a little desperately, I accepted a challenge. For two months, I carried a pocket-sized notebook around with me, and I wrote down everything for which I was grateful. My life became a series of moments in which I attended to the beauty around me and within me. I hoped the exercise would make me finally happy and content.
It did. And it didn’t.
Because I discovered something both wonderful and disconcerting about gratitude: Gratitude is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.
How We Abuse Gratitude
When we find ourselves in the midst of struggle and sorrow over which we have no control, a practice of gratitude is essential, because we need to be reminded of the rest of the story. We need to be reminded of the gifts we have in the midst of the pain we endure. We need to be blessed by the whole truth. It restores balance. It brings peace.
But when we turn to gratitude to feel quickly content within a misery we might redeem, we have made gratitude a method for accepting a crummy status quo. A practice of inertia. A discipline for safety. A way to avoid change:
Instead of leaving a toxic job, we tell ourselves to be grateful for our paycheck. Instead of challenging an abusive spouse, we’re grateful for our friends. Instead of asking the one we love to stop drinking, we’re grateful for the moments of sobriety. Instead of being honest about the wounds our parents inflicted, we’re grateful for the roof they provided. Instead of risking what we’re passionate about in the world, we’re grateful for the good-but-soul-numbing things we already have.
Most of us abuse gratitude. By making it a means to an apathetic end.
But gratitude is not only meant to satisfy us; it’s meant to send us.
Gratitude erases our sense of scarcity. It works the abundance of life into our bones. Not so we might enjoy perpetual abundance, but so our sense of abundance might strengthen us for the barren times. Gratitude is the sweet light we carry into the bitter darkness. Gratitude is the warmth we carry into the cold.
Which is to say, gratitude is a lot like autumn.
Gratitude Prepares Us for Winter
Autumn is here again, and there is red everywhere.
Red in the canopies above, red in the dwindling-slanting light, red in the shine of apples ripened by summer heat, and red in the rosy glow of school-aged cheeks ripened by the autumn chill. The world is turning red like a stoplight, commanding us, “Halt, attend, do not ignore me for another season. Behold the abundance and the beauty you walk within.”
The rolling orange hues of a pumpkin patch and the harvest moon and the deep bronze of fresh apple cider and maple glaze and the sweet smell of composting leaves and the slippery scent of pumpkin guts and the smoky aroma of fires warming hands in the night and the sharp odor of crisp outdoors on the skin and the tanginess of apples picked and pressed and pied and Thanksgiving tables overflowing with the flavors of the season.
While the days shrink, the sensory onslaught of autumn expands. And it needs to expand, because seasons change and we will soon be confronted by the cold, dark, barren winter that follows. The abundance of autumn imprints itself on our hearts so we might be empowered to carry a resilient sense of light and warmth into the darkest and coldest days of the year.
Autumn is not meant to pacify us; it’s meant to prepare us.
Just like gratitude.
Sent by Gratitude
The abundance and the beauty present in every moment is there for us to take in, not so we might settle in it, but so it might settle in us.
Several years ago, I took the gratitude challenge, and my world ceased to be a place of scarcity. Everything dripped with the light of our raging sun, the shimmer of leaf-shadows on my living room floor became a holy dance, and the laughter (and screaming) of my children became a sacred symphony. I knew I had more than enough, and I knew I was more than enough.
I quit being afraid of my loneliness, because abundance was keeping me company, even when I was alone. I quit worrying that if I spoke up, people would decide I’m a fraud and reject me. I quit worrying that if I stood up and stood out people would leave me. I quit worrying about the dark times ahead of me, because gratitude had lit a light inside of me.
Two months after beginning the gratitude challenge, I started writing, and I started this blog.
Gratitude fills us up with abundance so our fear won’t disable us and the unknown path won’t deter us. Gratitude fills us up so we can end old ways and walk new paths and, on those new paths, discover who we’ve always been. It’s scary and uncertain and unknown, but it’s enough.
- What if we all took the gratitude challenge?
- What if we all got ambushed by abundance?
- What scary-wonderful paths might we begin to walk?
- Who might we remember ourselves to be?
Wow…what great words. Great words for me to read…right here, right now. So much of what Dr. Kelly wrote resonated deep down within me. He captured a central piece of our Redeem Your Ground story…how Britt and I have gotten to where we are now. A strange mix of gratitude, but knowing that there’s more…challenged us…sent us on this RYG journey almost 2 years ago to the day.
We’ve certainly not arrived…far from it…we know we have a long way to go. In fact…right here, right now…we feel a bit thin…spent…things are a bit grey, uncertain. But…BUT…being grateful for where we are and where we’re not…what we have…and who we have in our lives…keeps us going. But not in a woe-is-me kinda way…but hopefully in a light-filled, expectant kinda way.
So…are you going to take Dr. Kelly up on his gratitude challenge? I am. I hope you’ll join me.
[Thanks Dr. Kelly for once again letting me leverage your way with words on RYGblog…and not to mention how your words have impacted me personally.]
Take care all,
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Normally, I breeze through stories I think may be just fluffy and feel good tidbits.
This one stopped me in my tracks. I re-read the paragraph “How We Abuse Gratitude” three times before I continued. Not because I didn’t understand it but because I did.
Thank you, Douglas, for sharing this.
YES! I will be taking the gratitude challenge.
Much love to you, B and the girls!
Thanks Thusie! And yea…not your normal fluffy “if you’re happy and you know it” posts. Glad you’re joining in on the gratitude challenge. I look forward to a post (and during) challenge debrief. Much love back to you, C…and that fat cat! – D.