With so many things to protest, would I really choose gratitude? I suppose the answer would have to be yes. Actually not only do I get cranky around the pressure to feel grateful on cue, I actually think it is bad for people. I’m talking here about forced gratitude, as in the call to singing joyful phrases while presenting cancer victims and survivors with pink ribbons—as just one example.
This came up for me just yesterday when I was visiting a friend in another state who had offered me a ticket to a psycho-spiritual conference meant to inspire hope in oneself and in the world. She had just been ill and was better now and my coming with her was important. The first sign of being asked to scream thanks to the universe had me almost on my feet, fleeing the room. But feeling Ellen would be upset I stayed. Thank the heavens (organic gratitude, I would call this), she glanced at me and whispered in a knowing way, “I don’t think I can take much of this either. Let’s escape for lunch and not come back”: relief for both of us.
It brought up for me also a number of people I see in therapy who are chronically dissatisfied with who they are, with whether they have been married or married and divorced and remarried yet, with whether they are conforming to the “going with the flow” which seems to me to be more like following a herd mentality. The eagerness of a gratitude assumed to be mindful, can sometimes shame the people who are feeling estranged in some way. That estrangement may come either through economic or social inequality, or through depression or trauma that have not gone away despite odes telling them to change their focus and think only about the good things in their life.
It’s not Thanksgiving yet, but of course. It is pumpkin time and even eggnog time in some stores. So let’s say it’s pre-Thanksgiving, usually marked by Halloween on its merry way to pre-Christmas/”holiday” cheerful giving, which is usually over abundance for some and silent isolation for others who do not have the funds. One certainly doesn’t hear much of a protest of all the gift giving from those who don’t talk out loud about not having the money to take part.
Back to the part about mandatory gratitude perhaps not being good for one’s health and wellbeing and certainly not for one’s integrity. On the inside at times there are conflicts and wounds that need to be faced before gratitude can be real. On the outside there are plenty of social issues that are screaming for repair and attention as well. Economist and social activist Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America (Picador, 2010) how relentless emphasis on making lemonade out of lemons so to speak can focus our energies away from external problems needing our attention.
I find that gratitude can be something very rich and vital. It can be deeply moving to look at the life and health and growth and the discoveries we can get to experience. In particular I find it can feel touching to experience the appreciation for the people who know us, who understand us, and who love us despite our faults.
I have mentioned before how crankiness can be a signal that something is off in our environment, and not always just that something is off inside us. The same may be true of gratitude. Yes, not having it or enough of it may mean we are greedy or motivated by incessant needs for power and celebrity—some of which become obsessions whose emptiness can never be filled. Sometimes, however, it may mean that something is wrong—something that needs to be understood and mended if possible.
Some of us are deeply sensitive to the ills of the world and take them personally. For that my answer of sorts is that we come together because caring alone is often just too lonely. But also one of the answers I have come up with is to probe the reasons under the given reasons for the greater malaise and the adversarial atmosphere that plagues our time. It isn’t just understanding better but understanding how people in power use psychology as a force to manipulate us into hating each other, into distraction and into resignation. Being manipulated into thinking that gratitude at any cost and on demand is the answer to mental and social health may just be part of an effort to keep our minds detached from coming together to ask how we are kept stuck. It can become a predictable script that forges a make believe connectedness to a make believe community.
By the way I am grateful for being able to force my way out of my own congestion to have some thoughts and feelings that seem to matter. I will be ever so much more grateful if I have some company along the way.
One moment and one holiday at a time.
# Forced Gratitude