It’s nearly the fifth anniversary of my going to America to meet Tom in person, and this winter will be our fourth wedding anniversary. Not a day goes by but I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the richness and joy he has brought into my life. Curled up in the warm, safe, friendly place that is our bed, I end every single day conscious of how fortunate I have been in all of this, and still possessed of a sense of wonder about how it’s all worked out.
Fairy tale romance it may have been, but in the sense of there being a good helping of ogres, dragons, dramatic escapes, and hard battles. We’ve come through all of that to this place of stability, a home of our own, some financial security and as much certainty about the future as anyone gets. Not a day goes past but I stop for a moment to recognise that so much could have gone so differently. In part we were lucky, but we also never gave up, on each other and on what we wanted. Although there were some terrifying times when everything seemed set against us, we got through. There have, especially in the last year, been some blessed times of relative peace and ease and not fearing for the future.
Gratitude tends to derive from a sense of perspective. For many people the old adage ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is all too true. We also tend not to know what we’re missing until we find it. Gratitude can open our eyes to the blessings in our life, but if all we’ve ever known is famine, we can mistake scraps for a feast, and not realise that we could be reaching for more than those scraps. I’ve experienced that journey in my emotional life and it is only in the experience of bounty that I am able to look back and see how much gratitude I felt for what was proportionally very little. Being grateful for very little helped keep me in a place that was harmful to me, and discouraged me from imagining there was anything better to seek.
It’s one thing to be grateful for what food you can find when there really is a famine, quite another to be fed on crumbs while others live in plenty. Gratitude has to be tempered with a sense of justice, or it can become a very good way of helping people who have nothing to stay on their knees. We tell our poor they should be grateful for the foodbanks, not that they should be furious with a system that only gives them the choice of foodbank or hunger. And we should not be so grateful that someone, anyone loves us, that we accept their ‘love’ on any terms, no matter how toxic.
We are told to be grateful to the rich, with their job creation providing our wealth, and trickledown economics spreading the bounty. These are myths, for it is work that creates wealth, and nothing worth having trickles down – just crumbs from the table that others have worked hard to load up although they are not invited to the feast. If we practice gratitude to those who hold power over us, we can end up counting our blessing that they aren’t a worse sort of tyrant, rather than kicking them out and making things better.
There’s an idea (I think it comes originally from Aristotle) that virtue is the midpoint between two vices. Gratitude is a spiritual virtue, and it’s obvious opposite is ingratitude. Place it in a three point way of conceptualising, and rather than gratitude/ingratitude, you can see gratitude as a line between ingratitude, and complicity. Be grateful for the good things you have, but don’t be so grateful in all things that you end up supporting unjust systems, accepting abuse and corruption, and going along with things not being as good as they could be.