I used to participate in the traditional Thirty Days of Thanks each year. It made me feel good, I spent a portion of each day thinking about things for which I felt gratitude. Of course, this ended up being an “always happy somewhat repetitive” list. Don’t get me wrong, being grateful for all that we have and all of our wins, large and small is a good thing, but is that actually what gratitude is or means?
Does gratitude only apply to the good things in life?
There are several philosophies about living in gratitude. The idea that an “attitude of gratitude” is the healthiest way to live is prevalent in spiritual, religious and health improvement realities. Knowing what we know about the adverse effects stress has on the body this is not surprising. Moments of positive reflection can lower blood pressure, decrease cortisol production and improve overall physical and emotional/mental/spiritual health.
So why am I bothered now, by this whole “30 days of thanks?”
I think because it pushes the idea that to have gratitude you have to have happiness. No one lists anything negative or sad in their 30 examples. There are no cancer diagnoses or child losses or house fires listed here, and I get it. These are not events that inspire gratitude. But they are natural occurrences in the lives of many people. No one is exempt from tragedy, sadness, grief or loss.
And no one is exempt from gratitude.
I came across two quotes today that inspired this blog. Both of them speak of duplicity, feeling and/or thinking two opposing things at the same time. Both talk about or infer the belief that an attitude of gratitude is the way to experience true peace, success and well-being.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said,
“The test of first-rate intellect is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
My entire life now, since Molly died and perhaps before, exists in this sentence. I am happy and sad at the same time all the time. I am never truly just one of the other. Spending energy to push one emotion aside for the sake of the other is an impossibility and quite honestly, a waste of that energy. It is better for me to simply live inside of both.
And I do.
The week Molly was on life support I was surrounded by people from all aspects of my life. Highschool and college friends. Co-workers, CrossFit friends, relatives, along with all of those connected to Molly. There were many times during that week that I laughed and had fun. Looking back, I am sure that part of this was shock, that wonderful thing the body and mind do in times of extreme trauma, shield us from pain.
It is also, I realize now, what it means to live in gratitude.
I was, and am, so very grateful for those six days at Dartmouth. Sunday May 1st to Sunday May 7th will always be the worst week of my life. In many ways, it was and is also one of the greatest weeks of my life. In the utter devastation and horror of the reality that Molly was dead, some of the most beautiful and profound things occurred. In my journey as a mother with a dead child, I have met people, been involved in events and experienced things that are amazing and beautiful.
Would I give them all up to have Molly back? Of course. But I am also grateful.
Gratitude is a driving force in the treatment of addiction. “Fake it til you make it” “Have an attitude of gratitude” are common phrases shared in AA meetings. While there is little actual scientific evidence as to the effects of gratitude on recovery, those alcoholics who have years of sobriety under their belts swear by it.
So, what is going on here?
In the book “As Bill Sees It” he writes, “I try to hold fast to the truth that a full and thankful heart can not entertain great conceits. When brimming with gratitude, one’s heartbeat must surely result in outgoing love, the finest emotion we can ever know”.
Whie this quote initially looks impossible to achieve, as it seems to say all sadness, anger and despair must be absent for happiness to exist, I realize now that it does not speak to what is in your heart, but the structure of the heart itself. I can never bring Molly back. Alcoholics can never have sober pasts. While we can not change the past, we can create a physical/emotional spiritual reality in which to deal with that past, and ultimately move along from it, or carry it more effectively.
We often attach meaning to the events themselves, which can leave gratitude feeling like an impossible emotion to achieve.
“If I am grateful for that week at the hospital it must mean I am not sad about Molly” “If I am grateful for the new friendships I have made because of her death, then it must mean she was supposed to die so I could meet these people, learn and grow. I deserved her death; it was necessary for me to learn my lesson.”
These are the thoughts that run through the minds of people who have been through an extreme trauma. That gratitude is mutually exclusive from sadness. That having gratitude means you are “over” the sadness. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is where living in gratitude really comes into play.
In the darkest hours, be grateful for any sliver of light. If there is no light, sit in the darkness and let it soothe you. If it can’t soothe you, be grateful that you can hurt. Gratitude requires presence and mindfulness. It requires you to look outside of yourself. It gives perspective.
I will never be ok with Molly’s death, or my job loss, or my friendship with Aimee and Roy. I will never be ok with my child abuse. I will never be ok with my friend Moira’s death. I could live in my list of things that have brought trauma and sadness and can keep me living in anger. From all of these events, however, have come amazing people, friendships, and experiences that have made me a better person.
This does not mean I needed them to happen in order to learn.
It means that I am healing and growing, it means that my heart is open to the good in the world.
It means I can live with both grief and joy and honor both.
“Gratitude makes sense of the past, brings peace for today, and creates vision for tomorrow”
-Melody Beattie (author of Codependent No More)