The dark side of gratitude.

I was talking to a colleague and friend a while ago about gratitude journals. For those of you who don’t work in mental health or haven’t jumped on board the mindfulness train (I shouldn’t disparage it: mindfulness is a wonderful technique and way of being which unfortunately gets bandied around as a cure-all for most of life’s afflictions), a gratitude journal is exactly what its name implies: a daily diary in which you write down the things for which you’re grateful.

It can be a nice thing to do. It forces a change in perspective, and that can often be a good thing. It forces us to get out of our heads, to notice the blessings that are often overlooked in the bustle of life, or in the often dark, worry-laden spirals of our thinking. And the average person has thousands of things to write: before sitting down at my computer (an unimaginable luxury for most of the world’s population) to write this, I filled up my water glass. From the tap. And I will drink it without fear of dysentery, or water-borne parasites, or pollutants, or any one of a thousand things that the world’s poor face on a daily basis. To say nothing of the myriad of blessings for which, even on my darkest days, I’m grateful: choir, music, family and friends, a job I (mostly) love; my freedom. The day I stop being grateful for those things is the day I need a solid bollocking, or a good slap.

However, there’s a dark side to this, which is: sometimes you can fill a page with blessings and be truly grateful for all of them, and yet you still feel like shit. You know that the points of light in your life should overwhelm the darkness, or at least keep it at bay; you know you’ve less to complain about than the frighteningly vast percentage of the world’s population; you know that you’re blessed beyond what you ever could have hoped for, and yet it isn’t enough. Darkness still drags after you like a child’s dress-up bridal train, and all a gratitude journal becomes is a list of why you’re an ungrateful brat and you should feel guilty.

I kept a gratitude journal for about two weeks, at the suggestion of a friend I deeply respect. Finally, sick of a three-dollar notebook laying yet another guilt-trip on me, I tossed it into the recycling bin at work in a fit of pique. Ironically, I was grateful that I hadn’t chosen to use one of my nice French acid-free lined notebooks.

Being grateful is important. I remain overwhelmed by the undeserved grace showered upon me and every day I am grateful for my life, my safety and my freedom. But life is not always peachy. Sometimes shit happens for no reason at all and we can and should rage and mourn even as we refuse to take our blessings for granted.

The trick lies in finding the balance. Like everything in my life at the moment, it’s a work in progress.

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