Becoming the Living Poet

I’ve Got a Gratitude Problem

Posted on: June 23, 2009

No Thoughts......

Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful. -Buddha

Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive. -Edward Gibbon

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings. -Eric Hoffer

I’ve got a gratitude problem.

Whenever I try to express gratitude I feel terrified that the message isn’t come across to the other person.

Complicating matters further is the fact that for me the concept of gratitude tends to be intimately connected to the concepts of debt and obligation. Whenever someone does me a good turn I worry about how I’ll be able to repay them. What if I am never able to repay them and have to spend the rest of my life carrying around a heavy metaphysical debt? Or worse what if they have pre-expectations about how they would prefer to be repaid and ask for something from me that I can’t give? Not only will I be in their debt, but they’ll regret having helped me.

I love the concepts of reciprocity and trade because they’re transparent with reasonably well-defined parameters. Gratitude is opaque and people to whom you are supposed to be grateful tend to have a long memory.

Gratitude, debt, obligation, reciprocity, trade – time to do some unpacking.

On Psyblog, a positive psychology blog, I found 10 Grateful Steps to Happiness and Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness by 25%.

These articles seem to imply that gratitude is less a way of relating to other people and more a state of mind. A grateful state of mind involves being able to see the beneficial aspect of a situation, even if it seems counter-intuitive. It involves recognizing improvements in one’s circumstances and celebrating small pleasures like kind words, pleasant weather, and days that don’t involve respiratory failure.

I like these aspects of gratitude a great deal. I feel like the universe (or a deity if you prefer) gives and takes on its own time line and that not appreciating moments when the universe ‘decides’ to be kind is wasteful and self-defeating.

What I really have a problem with is when someone goes above and beyond for my benefit.

According to positive psychology cultivating gratitude is one of the most important steps to improving one’s happiness. Maybe that’s why the whole concept of gratitude produces one big ginormous mound of stuck for me. It feels like the studies are saying if you’re not grateful you won’t be happy. Thus you have to be grateful, but being grateful increases my vulnerability to other people’s opinions of me. Perhaps I should stop accepting favors from people? That would close off the gap in my armor and yet positive psychology also says that asking for help when you need it is also an important factor in happiness. Trying to be happy can be such a catch-22 so much of the time.

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It was at this point in the post when I got really stuck and stopped writing for several hours. I had lunch, did dishes, tried to think about other things, and tried, without much success, not to gnash my teeth at the idea that the concept of gratitude was apparently too complex or too ephemeral for me to grasp. It seemed apartent that gratitude was too something or other because it was slipping through my fingers.

Then I had a small breakthrough. I realized that the stuck surrounding the concept of gratitude was my fear of not being a happy person.

Over and over again I hear about how crucial gratitude is for preserving and improving happiness. The message seems clear. Gratitude is an imperative. If I can’t be grateful, then I can’t be happy, which places a big scary ‘should’ atop the subject.

I keep dancing around the issue of how ‘transparent’ to be in these blog posts.

I am frequently as vague and philosophical as possible to protect the identities of the innocent and the guilty.

At the end of her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didian says:

People tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.

I agree with Didian. Perhaps it is because I am a writer, that I am a compulsive truth teller, a betrayer. I have no illusions about that being an amoral quality at best. It is certainly not a virtue.

When I was in Norcal during the internet blackout I stayed with my mother for a little over a week. Perhaps it is because she is of my blood that the words she chooses can open up my veins with great precision.

She did me a very good turn recently. She came down to San Diego to drive the Uhaul so I could drive my car up to Norcal and she offered to watch my stuff, my cat, and my car while I frolicked around Europe for two months. In the time I spent with her I tried to express my gratitude as sincerely as possible, but I could not give her the one thing she wanted from me – flawless mental health.

If you were truly grateful, you wouldn’t be so depressed and anxious. If you were truly grateful you’d be happier.

I wanted to do as she asked, but for whatever reason I had some nasty episodes that week, and couldn’t even pull myself together enough to fake stable.

The low point came when I had a panic attack in front of her new boyfriend who I had only just met the day before and when he was out of ear shot she complained to my aunt that her wacko daughter was trying to scare her boyfriend away.

Or maybe the low point came when she accused me of not having enough decorum to hide my emotions or being self centered and insensitive to other people’s feelings after I expressed some of my feminist opinions.

Hard to say. There were a lot of low points that week and I’m not an objective observer.

My mother’s words cut me, deeper than they’ve cut me in a long time, and it hardly mattered that her boyfriend later reported that he had found me smart, funny, and likable, and that upon hearing a positive review from the only person she needed me to impress she promptly apologized for her overly hasty accusations.

She had already reiterated the unspoken theme of my childhood: being yourself is always a choice and a selfish one at that. No one will like you as you really are so polish up that mask to a sparkling shine and keep it pulled over the scars and the blemishes at all times.

There’s a line from Tori Amos’ song, Jackie’s Strength that always resonated with me: If you love enough you lie a lot.

That’s often how it was with us when we were living together, particularly in high school. I pretended that her alcoholism didn’t hurt me and she pretended that she wasn’t an alcoholic. We both did it out of fear and a little love: fear of admitting that neither of us was happy and neither of us knew what to do about it, and a deeper fear that our unhappiness meant one of us didn’t love the other enough.

You see my mom was a single mother and I was her only daughter. Love was never optional. We were all we had. Love was necessary and expected.

But now that I’m older, I don’t want to pretend anymore. I know I have serious issues with anxiety and depression. They don’t prevent me from being a functional person, but they are not some temporary rough patch I’m going through. They have been with me for years and will likely not be vanishing by magic anytime soon. I’m working on them. I’m getting better every week, sometimes every day. In San Diego I was seeing a therapist. I write this blog and I talk about things with people I trust. In San Francisco I plan to start therapy again.

My mom is the daughter of an alcoholic too, so it’s hard for her to see someone else unhappy and not make it about her. It’s hard to believe that a person in pain isn’t going to turn on you if you don’t ‘fix’ the problem as quickly as possible. I know because it’s hard for me too.

Unfortunately I am in a lot of emotional pain right now, not 24 hours a day and not even 7 days a week, but often, and I want to own that pain. I want to pick it up, hold it under a lamp, and examine it until I understand it. I want to sooth it with compassionate words of understanding until it feels safe enough to be a little quieter and easier to manage. I want to own it as a part of myself. What I don’t want to do is run from it, repress it, and pretend it doesn’t exist because I’ve been doing that for over a decade now and it’s given me panic attacks and this vague feeling that nothing I do is ever good enough.

Clearly my pain is not following the rules of B-movie monsters. It will attack me at random intervals whether I turn around to look at it or not, so I might as well take a good long look to understand what I’m up against.

But my mom doesn’t like my destuckification journey. She thinks I am dwelling too much on my feelings. She thinks I should just ‘get over it’, ‘stop living in the past’, ‘move on already’.

I am afraid she is right, but as ungrateful as it makes me feel, I cannot agree with her on this point. I cannot just get over the things that have happened to me. I can work through them and try to get to a point where I accept the lessons that traumatic events have taught me, the strength those experiences have given me. I can accept that I would not be the person I am today if my life had taken a different path, but walking a path covered in broken glass still hurts. The useful callouses that cover your feet after the wounds have healed don’t make the experience pleasant.
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This is a good place for a pause. For more ponderings on the theme of gratitude please read What is Ingratitude?

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