Gratitude is such a fundamentally important emotion to recognize: gratitude for everything from healthy children to roofs over our heads to, as Emily says when she returns briefly from the afterlife in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, “coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up.”
Yet last night I found myself wondering if my ceaseless quest to carry gratitude into all aspects of my life was drowning out some other thoughts that might deserve a moment or two of free expression. I was feeling anxious about some things and irritable about others, and yet every time I tried to focus on those emotions, all I could hear was my conscience saying “No, be grateful, be grateful.”
And for the most part, that’s true: what I am blessed with and what I should feel grateful for so overpowers what I might be anxious or irritable about. So there’s another six inches of rain in the forecast? Be grateful that unlike the earthquake survivors in Haiti, you’ll be inside your house as the rain falls. Yes, says a small voice, but we somehow have to solve the problem of the driveway washing out again, and I haven’t done anything about it. The car needs servicing? How lucky that you have a reputable auto shop a mile away and enough money to pay the bill. Yes, says that same small voice, I know that, but the mechanic actually said I need to take it to the dealer to have something else checked out, and somehow I’m going to have to find time for that trip, and spend still more money on it… The kids’ clamor at the dinner table was making my skull vibrate? Well, there are people whose children don’t talk at all. Statistically, you’re remarkably lucky not to have any autism in the family. Yes, true, but it was still a lot of noise at the dinner table when I could have used just a little bit of peace and calm. A client gave a somewhat acrimonious reception to some work you just finished? Be glad for employment. Of course, but it still hurts my feelings when clients don’t like my work.
What I’m beginning to suspect is that about 90% of the time it’s crucial to let gratitude overrule all other emotions, but that there are moments nonetheless when ingratitude deserves just a moment of acknowledgment. I need to complain, carp, whine. I need to ask gratitude to just hush for a moment so someone else can have a turn to talk.
My 11-year-old returned from an excursion with friends recently. As he was saying goodbye to them, I interrupted rather obtrusively to ask if he had thanked them for bringing him along. “You always do that when we drop him off!” chided the parent of Tim’s friend. “Of course he thanked us. He always does. And now he’s trying to tell us about something and you’re interrupting to remind him to thank us yet again.”
That parent was right to call me on it: saying thank you is good manners, but I wasn’t giving Tim a chance to say anything else as the get-together ended. And sometimes I do the same thing to myself. Gratitude matters, but allow negativity to have a voice every now and then. Purge it and get back to the gratitude. Yes, shelter is a magnificent luxury when it’s raining, but for a moment let’s just allow ourselves to feel how cold and wet the rain is. It’s okay. You can say thank you some more in a moment, but for this particular second in time, acknowledge what’s not so great. Because it, too, matters.