Such a simple idea… slowing down, taking stock of our lives, making the choice to focus on the good we have, and spending less time searching and yearning for what we don’t. Pausing in nature, taking more time with our kids, realizing that we ALREADY have everything we need…to me, the idea of finding gratitude in everyday life was such a simple but game changing goal.
And then suddenly, it was everywhere. In hashtags, and mommy blogs, in commercials, in the stores, suddenly everyone was being told: be thankful for what you have (and what they don’t say: be thankful for what you have, no matter what that is).
Still sounds okay, right? What could be wrong with encouraging this shift in so many people’s way of thinking?
I think I first became aware of the discomfort as I was teaching a “Yoga for Grief and Loss” class.
In teaching my other yoga classes I had always finished with a relaxation exercise that typically focused on centering, finding ways to stay in the present, and most of all, how to find happiness in the small joys of life.
But in trying to do this same exercise with a yoga class of grievers, it just felt wrong. Who was I to tell them they should feel grateful? How can gratitude feel like a normal or natural emotion for someone who has felt the earth completely disappear from beneath their feet?
And then another, somewhat disturbing trend of people trying so hard to find gratitude that I was witnessing, even in the lowest and darkest of times. In support groups I facilitated and with so many people I spoke with one-on-one, I found that as people spoke, and poured their hearts out they would very regularly finish with, “but I shouldn’t complain, I have so much to be grateful for”.
And this got me thinking…
Aren’t there times in our life when we’re allowed to be a little ungrateful? Where we’re allowed to think that life sucks and it’s not fair, and I just want to whine and scream and throw a tantrum about it? Do I really have to manage all of this with a smile on my face, and feel guilty any time I am not feeling grateful for “everything” I still have?
I can’t tell you how often I witness people apologizing for their unhappiness. In the age of gratitude we’ve been conditioned to think that if we’re not feeling grateful for what we have (regardless of how little that may be, or how little it may feel) that we are UNGRATEFUL. And that is one of the worst things a person could be.
In my personal life, after venting about a tough day, or a difficult time, a friend may say, “but I guess I should be grateful, it’s not like I have cancer or something”.
What about the people who DO have cancer, or who have just lost someone to cancer? In my experience, they’re expressing much of the same thing…”I guess I should be grateful, at least I have a home and food to eat”.
So before I go much further and sound totally ungrateful for the gratitude movement, I think it’s important to make the distinction.
When life is “good”, it’s a great idea to make an effort to find gratitude for the blessings we have. If we find ourselves getting “petty” or feeling too weighed down by the “little things” than by all means, a quick check-in and reminder of our good fortune is certainly a good practice to help keep life in perspective when we need it.
But for the rest of the time- not just after a loss, but any time life is painful, harsh, and incredibly unfair, give yourself permission to feel really ungrateful for all of it. Know that it’s healthy to sit with the sadness. Know that we experience great personal growth when we open ourselves and fully experience the pain life brings.
Does this mean I’m advocating for wallowing or ruminating or becoming stuck in a cycle of grief and despair? For those with a strong faith, does this mean turning away from the belief that these trials are part of a greater plan?
What I am suggesting is that before we take stock of what’s left in life, we allow ourselves time to pause and feel sad and cheated for what we don’t have or what has been taken from us.
Sit with the sadness. Allow yourself to cry out, “why me?”. Make no excuses for the dark and bitter place your thoughts may take you. And do it for as long as you need to do it- until it’s not working anymore, until you know (and you WILL know), that it’s time and you are ready to move forward.
Then, and only then, will you find gratitude.
Like a patient friend, it will be there to remind you of the life you shared with the loved one you lost. To tell you that great love brings great loss. It will be found in the small space of transition where memories once so tinged with sadness, are softened and warmed with a feeling of blessing and joy. It will be the recognition of surviving hard times and of being someone who can endure more than they ever thought they could.
And that is always – always – something to feel grateful for.