Monday, January 30, 2012

When gratitude hurts (other people)

“The reason I don’t like looking at Facebook is that everyone is just bragging about how happy they are!”

The sentiment came from an acquaintance during an informal group discussion about social media recently. Although I don’t know the woman who said it well, I do know that she has faced some very difficult obstacles in her life recently. But it surprised me nonetheless. I had never thought about expressing happiness as a form of bragging. I just think of it as, well, honesty. And an outward display of gratitude. And almost everyone agrees that gratitude is a good thing, don’t they? In Thornton Wilder's words, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

And yet I’m sympathetic to this acquaintance, who has endured with courage particular problems that are very alien to me. I don’t even think she and I are connected on Facebook, but her words gave me pause and made me think about whether there are times when it is insensitive to express gratitude.

Yesterday I thought of her as I sat down at my computer to dash off a quick update. Yesterday was the kind of day that was wonderful for its very ordinariness. I barely left home, except to teach Sunday school in the morning. Sunday school is far, far from being one of my favorite things to do, but it’s a little like the Vaudeville joke about why the man is hitting himself with a pipe: it feels so good when I stop, and after a successful class – which I define as one in which all the kids stayed attentive and contributed to the discussion – I feel great about the time I put into preparing for it. Better still, I had fit in a run before church, so I didn’t have to go through the morning with the thought of fitting in a run hanging over my head. After church I bought some fresh fruit, went home and made everyone lunch, and read the paper for a while. Then I put together a pot of vegetarian chili and let it simmer while two friends and I went walking in the woods for an hour, and after that I made chocolate chip cookies and spent the evening with my family.

But is it bragging for me to admit that? Or is it expressing gratitude? Of course, the fact that one person said she doesn’t like hearing about how happy other people are doesn’t make it uniformly wrong, but her opinion means something to me. I’m well aware of how many people face challenges that I don’t, or for whatever reason have not found themselves in the same fortunate circumstances I have. Is my being happy anathema to their sense of well-being?

I don’t know the answer. As I said at the outset, I was surprised that she said she didn’t like to read about other people’s happiness. I don’t think any the worse of my friend for her honesty. And even knowing that one person might be made to feel worse than necessary for my posts initially made me hold back from writing about yesterday’s pleasures.

But actually, I don’t think my expressions of gratitude are necessarily what she was talking about anyway. I wasn’t bragging about my children’s successes or my vacation plans. I was just taking pleasure in an ordinary day. And my guess is that she would understand that – the gratitude itself, and the good intent behind it.

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the acquaintance's dislike is more frustration with those afraid to be honest with others, and themselves, about their life because they've spent so much time and effort carefully crafting an image of a carefully crafted, perfectly-tended life. If they admit it's all a sham, well then, it is.

    I've never been good at pretending, though often wished I could just keep my big mouth shut when life fell short of perfect. Sometime around my 40th a friend told me what she valued most in me was my transparency. I then realized so many live life pretending they've got it all worked out, when really we're all struggling with our 'stuff' and trying to figure it out. I just couldn't ever do the pretending. While it didn't get me voted most popular when I was younger, I certainly always knew, and know, who my friends are. They're the ones disinterested in the carefully crafted, well-tended life; rather, they want the real, the raw, the 'yea!' and the tears. And I love them for it.

    Maybe you should FB friend your acquaintance ...