Inspired by one of my friends on Instagram who is listing 101 things she’s grateful for during the month of November, I’ve spent the past week doing the same. I have no number goal in mind; I just try to post around 5 things a day and look forward to seeing how it influences my state of mind come Thanksgiving.
A couple days into this intentional gratitude, I started to think about what differentiates gratitude from other positive emotions. I was listing things that made me happy, but I wasn’t sure if “gratitude” was the best emotion to describe what I felt about them. Perhaps I should be simply saying I enjoy those things, or that they make me happy. Was “gratitude” fitting?
So me being me (seriously, you do not want inside this head), I started to think about what gratitude is, what it means, and what elicits it. I came to think that the circumstance that elicits gratitude is one that makes us happy, yes, but is also one that involves the recognition that life could have turned out otherwise. I’m grateful for this time in Hawaii, precisely because I’m very aware I could have spent these last few years somewhere less amazing. I’m grateful for my kitties, because I know someone else could have adopted them and I wouldn’t have been able to live with and love them. (SOBS) I’m grateful for my job because I know, from experience, that I could very easily have a job that doesn’t allow me to get into nature, that doesn’t let me get to do something I love, that involves people who are less supportive, that doesn’t pay enough, and that offers fewer opportunities for advancement. I feel lucky and grateful because I know my career could have turned out differently.
(If you’ll allow me a weird digression — and seriously, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs — I wonder that if it is indeed the case that we can only feel gratitude in situations that could have turned out differently, if gratitude for our parents doesn’t make sense. It makes sense to be grateful for beloved friends and partners [what if we hadn’t found them?!], but it makes less sense to be grateful for our parents, for the simple reason that we couldn’t have been born to any other people. There is no alternative to us existing without being born to the people who are our biological parents. No other mix of DNA could produce us. [Special snowflakes, we are!]
By contrast, parents can be grateful for their kids because timing + biology could have worked out differently. The mother could have gotten pregnant at a different time, or a different swimmer could have made that sweet, sweet love connection. Parents could have had different children, but children couldn’t have had different parents. A child can feel gratitude that her parents have lived so long, that she’s had x many years with them, that they turned out to be good people, etc., because all those circumstances could have turned out differently. But being grateful for her parents is a little metaphysically — or ontologically? — odd.
And who doesn’t calibrate their emotions to what makes the most metaphysical or ontological sense?? Ok, digression over.)
If gratitude depends on the awareness that things could have turned out differently, then I think that means gratitude will always have a certain pang of sorrow in it. Gratitude always includes us being able to imagine a more painful outcome, which means we’ve either seen that scenario play out with our loved ones, or see that sorrow in the world around us. (That alternate scenario must be tied to reality, otherwise it’s more delusion or paranoia. But I won’t make you suffer through another weird digression…)
I know for me, nothing triggers a deeper sense of gratitude than seeing someone struggle in a situation that is not my own, but is a situation I could easily imagine myself in. My Sunday running route takes me through a very urban part of Honolulu. Every Sunday I pass by 10 – 15 homeless people. Alongside the pang of distress and deep sorrow I feel for them, I feel a strong sense of gratitude; even relief. The positive feeling of gratitude for my security exists alongside the pang of sadness and empathetic suffering on their behalf, from me knowing that it was not inevitable that I would have my warm home, that it was possible that all kinds of life or psychological issues could have happened to me to make even my best efforts at having a home fail.
Perhaps, in some instances of gratitude, we may even feel a deeper frisson of fear, in that awareness that what comfort we have or hardships we don’t suffer are not guaranteed for any longer than that particular moment.
I think every moment of sincere gratitude must, then, include a bit of pain, of empathetic suffering or self-regarding fear, alongside its joy and peace. That makes gratitude one of the most complex, rich, possibly even unsettling emotions we can have. How weird and wonderful that we have a whole holiday forcing us to confront and practice it.