Can Gratitude Save Us?

“Fruit Still Life in a Landscape” by Severin Roesen

“Fruit Still Life in a Landscape” by Severin Roesen (via rawpixel)



Gratitude is an acceptance letter, a winning number, the free lunch you were told was impossible. In the language of spirit, gratitude conjures grace: a gift you did nothing to earn. Gratitude lets you feel like you will have what you need to make your journey. And it spills over into appreciation—of the person who loves you that much, the stranger whose kindness was unbidden, the world more beautiful than you knew.

Appreciation warms us. It is a gentle form of enthusiasm, which in the original Greek meant to be inspired by—even possessed by—a god. To have the divine inside you, glowing through the folds of viscera. And what slid that god inside? Somebody loving you, a burden dissolving, a community gathering round, an amazement.

All this wordplay might solve the mystery of why people never want to undo a horrific diagnosis. “Do you wish you had never had to go through this?” reporters invariably ask, and always the answer surprises us: “I would not change a thing.” All the fear and uncertainty and struggle they endured were wiped out by the gratitude that followed. To be alive is now extraordinary; the love and help that got them here has changed them. They like themselves better this way.

How different that is from the cultural imperative to be abruptly grateful on a single crisp day in late November, while your uncle is spouting praise for Trump and your spouse is already half drunk and you hate turkey and intend to console yourself with pizza the next day. We are too far from any real gratitude—the sort people feel when they are strangers and find welcome or starving and find food. Life has too much stress, too little real struggle.

Enter the wellness industry, the urgings toward mindfulness, the therapists ordering patients to write gratitude letters every day and fucking learn how to feel grateful. New research has so elevated the importance of this emotion that it will sound like bragging if I say gratitude has always come easily to me. Why, I used to wonder—was I just so Pollyanna, I could not see how grim life was? Then I thought it through. First, I had a mother so sensitive to any tiny childish worry or pain, so quick to accept and love and soothe, that I never felt beleaguered and alone in the world. A lot of kids do—forever. But secure attachment, the psychologists say, lets you value what you have.

Also, my father died when I was a baby, so I knew early how lucky anybody was just to be alive.

Also, I spent a lot of time trying to cheer up my mom, who did not feel lucky to be widowed at twenty-nine, let alone having been born in a large family to a mother with neither the time nor the disposition to be loving. The harder I tried to convince her that other people’s lives were not all as happy as they looked—and her own life would not always be lonely—the more flexible my own brain became, able to spin a rationale for nearly anything. This is not always a healthy trait, but it does keep you from sinking into a pout.

Finally, I was raised Catholic, and in Catholicism, you thank God for everything. Existence is contingent. Praise belongs elsewhere. Your life is about more than you. These beliefs leave zero room for the sense of entitlement that now plagues our culture. Why—because we have had it too easy, and we have too much? Is that the buried reason so many of us hate immigrants? Close-knit, implausibly generous, with a crazy-hard work ethic, they remind us of what we have lost: both gratitude and hope.

Turns out the two emotions are linked. When you are grateful, you feel optimistic enough to hope for important joys. When you live in a sea of stuff, its abundance tainted by the pessimism of a failing culture, you wind up grabby and self-centered, too cynical to hope for love, peace, democracy, justice, a clean and pure world, and leaders with the common sense and power to keep our tech from hurting us. What is left to hope for? A good Black Friday deal on a bigger flatscreen?

Cynicism, corrosive as battery acid, floods me every time I read the news. I keep my hope personal these days: health and happiness for everyone I love, including myself. I am grateful as often as ever. But even in that manageable personal sphere, a ridiculous anxiety cuts in, pushed by media and a general sense of precariousness. Instead of being grateful that we have savings and can pay our bills, I slide into abstract and hypothetical worries. What if this or that crisis comes? What if we have not saved enough, and what is enough? Instead of being grateful to feel good, I think of all the ills age will bring….

Anything you are grateful for can be flipped into fear. But it can also be flipped back. When I worry about my husband’s health, I remind myself to be grateful I have a husband I love enough to want to keep him alive. This Thursday, depressed by this country’s waning ability to feel grateful for anything, I will remind myself that a country is made up of billions of personal lives, each finding their own ways to be grateful even in a general climate of fear, division, and nonsense.

That is how this republic was born: from a collection of individual hopes. Damage was done along the way; repairs are still needed. But the more gratitude we can summon, the more will spill over into an appreciation of what we still have. And from that can come hope.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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