I tend not to blog when I’m feeling sorry for myself. Partly this is because I only post when I think I’ve figured out something that could be useful to someone. The bigger part is about a fear of being judged, and as a consequence of that judgement, being blamed, shamed, ridiculed and told off. If I’m having a bad day, I’ve usually enough self-preservation instinct not to give people an opportunity to tell me I’m making a fuss and being unreasonable and should pull myself together and get over it. I’ve had enough of those conversations in my life to make me really resistant to admitting when it hurts.
“You have so much to be grateful for.” This is one of the most effective ways of silencing a person who was seeking sympathy and kindness or trying to express what the problem is. Now, I like gratitude as a practice, I think it’s a really good thing to make time for on a daily basis and it is really important to hold awareness of what the better bits of our life are and where we have reason to be thankful. There can also be a terrible tyranny to it, if gratitude is the only thing you are allowed to feel or talk about.
Some days, I really don’t feel very grateful at all. Prolonged bouts of bodily pain and/or exhaustion will do that, and it’s hard to be grateful for the nice weather or not living in a war zone while your body is making you cry. I know there are people who have it a lot worse than me and I could make some effort and appreciate that a bit more, right? Except, if you have an imagination or any empathy, you will know, or picture that worse stuff, and feel ashamed of making a fuss about whatever ‘little thing’ is bothering you. And yes, having my whole body hurt is something I have come to think about as a little thing I should not make too much fuss about even though I would be horrified by anyone else doing that. Everyone else’s pain is more real, more important and more worthy of care. It’s not like it’s going to kill me, and there are starving children out there.
As a child I could never work out why my silence in the face of distress was going to be of any use to a starving child many miles away who would be no better off thanks to my stoicism. I knew the comparison made me feel a lot worse about myself, left me ashamed of tears, guilt ridden over expressions of frustration. I still feel a pang of unease if I venture to acknowledge hunger, or other such trivial things.
It’s worth asking who benefits if we are obliged to be grateful in all things. If all we can express is gratitude and there is no room to express distress, or discomfort, then we certainly go a long way to making sure that the comfortable people never have to feel unhappy about other people’s problems. Without space for something other than gratitude, it is exceedingly difficult to ask for help, or to explain where your limits might be. An excess of gratitude can make it really hard to say no.
All too often, an approach that should be about helping those who have abundance and comfort to be kinder to those who do not, turns into a way of silencing those who most need to be heard. The poorest and most vulnerable are to be grateful for whatever crumbs they get from the table. Those who are suffering are to be grateful it isn’t any worse. Those who are struggling are to be grateful that they are at least not ill, not starving… and what of the gratitude of those who have far more than they need? No, we are instead told to be grateful to them because they are so very good for us.
I can’t help but feel that if gratitude is something you tell someone else they ought to feel, the whole thing has gone horribly wrong, one way or another.