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Is Gratitude Always the Right Choice?

Is Gratitude Always the Right Choice?

When I was in a class years ago at the Unity Center in New York City, someone mentioned a friend who was sick with cancer. As she wrapped up her story, she said, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We all nodded. Solemnly.

After watching us commiserate, the associate minister chimed in. “What you’re really saying is that the person to whom the ‘bad’ thing is happening does not have God’s grace.”

In that moment, I realized the phrase I’d been using my whole life was no more than a mantra, offering the illusion that I was safe from life’s chaos and complexities.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I watch people thank God when they get something – an Oscar, a winning lottery ticket, a healthy baby. But when those same people experience something unpleasant – their house burns down, they don’t win an Oscar, the baby has an illness, the exclamation isn’t “Thank God.” It’s, “This must be God’s plan.”

And that’s just another flavor of “there but for the grace of God…”

The difference is that instead of just being a false safety net born of ego, attempting to explain the unexplainable, this one has an underpinning of forced acceptance with a side of spiritual bypassing. It’s all rainbows and unicorns when something goes “right” in our lives, and we get to thank God for all the blessings. But what happens when things go “wrong”?

As someone with a PhD in spiritual bypassing, who’s trekked a million miles on the “high road,” and spent years believing in a variety of deities in order to make sense of the senseless, I get it.

It seems easier tamp down the anger, rage, and frustration with a healthy dose of “well it must be God’s plan” and muster gratitude for unrelated things than it is to face feelings that can be scary.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have an issue with there being a “plan.” Whether it’s devised by God, one that’s agreed upon by your soul prior to incarnation, created by the Universe, or developed by any other entity, if that’s what you believe and it works for you, more power to you. What I take umbrage with is that having “feelings” about the plan is somehow wrong.  

I get told – by society, and sometimes even friends or family who are uncomfortable when I’m not emoting “over the moon” energy – that I just need to be grateful. As if that fixes everything. The subtext is that if you have feelings other than gratitude that you don’t have enough willpower or discipline to just walk away from those “negative” feelings and find the silver lining.

A search for “gratitude” on Google yields 501 billion results that define it, tell you how to practice it and why that’s important, and offer a ton of ideas on how to arrive there. A search for “feeling negative emotions” has half the number of results and focuses mostly on how to avoid, escape, or manage them. There is some discussion around the value of sitting with them, so that’s progress.

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Yes, we have a choice about where we place our focus. But insisting that all you should feel is gratitude, no matter the circumstances, is ridiculous. Ignoring or burying the uncomfortable feelings of disappointment, frustration, sadness, or any other emotion that may be labeled “negative” ensures that it will likely erupt at some point. In my experience, usually at a very inopportune moment.

Although it’s been reframed, this message isn’t new. For hundreds of years, women have been culturally conditioned not express pesky emotions like anger. If we do, we’re told to calm down and are labeled hysterical. If we cry, we’re called emotionally unstable. I’ve seen myriad women apologize for their tears, implying they need forgiveness for being “weak,” when it’s just a healthy expression of emotion.

Men are not much better off. They’re made fun of if they are anything less than stoic, even in the face of debilitating tragedy. It’s not masculine to show your emotions – but that really just applies to the ones associated with being a “female” like sadness, overwhelm or anything else that might lead to tears. Being angry, especially if you’re a white man, can even be seen as an indication of power or used as a motivational technique.

And by the way, where is the encouragement to show gratitude to ourselves? We’re the ones doing the work, making the hard choices, deciding what’s best for us, crafting and implementing the self-care, even when it feels like anything but self-care. Why is gratitude only supposed to be focused on the external?

Feeling the disappointment, the frustration, anger, and any other emotions that arise when things don’t go the way you want them to won’t kill you. Is it the fear that those feelings might debilitate us that keeps so many from embracing them? Or is it that feeling uncomfortable emotions can lead to change – and who wants to admit they love the idea of change, but actually changing? Not so much.

What if we were put here to experience all life has to offer, no matter the label we place on it?  You can feel sad and grateful at the same time the way you can want both Frosted Flakes and Cheerios for breakfast. What if we didn’t run from the dissonance and instead, practiced sitting in the discomfort of not knowing the answer, of having conflicting thoughts and feelings at the same time? Because not doing it creates a tenacious binary that leads to divisiveness.

And there’s enough of that to go around right now.

P.S. For the record, I choose to use the word appreciation rather than gratitude. A teacher of mine once pointed out that modern usage of the word gratitude can have an energy of hierarchy, of me being “less” than being given to by something “greater” than.

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