“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I was always taught to say please and thank you, which naturally became reflexive before the age of five. But about a year ago, I found myself jumping on the gratitude bandwagon and started listing 10 things I was thankful for every day in my journal. It became a ritual, almost a compulsion.
The things on my lists ranged from imperative to trivial, from the one who holds my heart, to the aroma of morning coffee. Although I’ve missed some days, whether it was because I was too tired that morning or too busy that night, I thought this month was a perfect excuse for putting the excuses aside. Simply put, I’m thankful for the circuitous route my life has taken and all bumps and potholes along the way. After all, if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t have some of the amazing people I have in my life, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to retell some of the experiences I have had.
But I can’t help but think about how gratitude has become quite the buzzword or catchword—so much so that I wonder if its impact has become somewhat diluted. I’ve long talked about word choice and how important it is. We also all know how important it is to be thankful for what we have…and naturally, I don’t mean materialistically speaking, but why do we now have to proclaim that gratitude? Obviously with the advent of technology and the ensuing onslaught of social media, everything has become transparent and privacy is all but extinct. But I wonder—and I have been guilty of this habit—why we feel the need to tell everyone what we’re thankful for. Mark Twain once said, “I don't care much for gratitude of the noisy, boisterous kind. Why, when some men discharge an obligation, you can hear the report for miles around.” Hmmm.
In between swaths of how-to guides and digital marketing shortcuts leading toward fame and success, we get hit with online content everywhere that’s saturated with heavy-handed recommendations, at times more like warnings, that we need to show gratitude in order to be happy. The Secret book and video series has become a multi-billion dollar business with gratitude as its focus.
Even though the importance of gratitude and its emotional and physical benefits have been well-known for centuries, gratitude has almost become trendy, as have numbered lists that offer us a tidy step-by-step roadmap to a happy life, but at what cost?
Plato averred the merits of gratitude in BC times; Beowulf solicited gratitude from the king when he rescued his people from the evil monster, Grendel; and Shakespeare’s visionary language was riddled with gratitude from Henry VI to King Lear. In fact, the British bard called ingratitude “monstrous.” Now several hundred years later, and the word is trendy, a keyword that Google salivates over. Go figure.
As I often do, I wonder what past figures would think of current crazes. What would Shakespeare say? Would he use it as an opportunity for another brilliant display of satire? Or would his timeless words like those from Henry VI, “Lend me a heart replete with thankfulness,” be replicated?
Enter my disclaimer: I still think being grateful for what you have experienced in your life should be a priority. But…I wonder if like many things Americans do, are we treating it like a quick fix to treat all that ails you? We’re told that beyond any other emotion that gratitude should always be the first one we feel no matter what we are facing—by simply breathing deeply, putting on a smile and thinking good thoughts, we’re all better. But how about anger, frustration, sadness, or a host of others when we’re faced with something unexpected, tragic or unfair? They are all important too, right? Suppressing one or more of those and jumping right to gratitude might be damaging, right?
From a personal perspective, I know that traumatic events in our lives sometimes just need to be digested and reflected upon before moving to the next step. Mourning the loss or pain we feel for a little while is okay. Consider a soldier returning from Afghanistan after experiencing the horrors of war. It might be a little harder for he or she to feel gratitude first when I’m sure anger, fear and guilt are probably weighing heavily on their minds. And that’s okay, right? I think the process from chaos or trauma to gratitude should be a journey and not one that should be rushed.
Psychologists say that all parts of the brain need to work in order for catharsis to set in as one releases emotions to feel relief. Journaling is one great way to do this because it taps into the parts of the brain that affect self-control and emotion. Yes, there are others.
So, if you’ve made it this far, I’m not going to neatly tie up this blog but rather leave it hanging and give thanks for your patience as I unraveled my thoughts as almost a stream of consciousness. I offer this blog not as a scientific report or an attempt to pretend like I’m the next Socrates, but rather as a curious exploration into our emotions and what drives and motivates us—key ingredients to telling anyone’s story. I welcome your comments.