page twenty-one: My Love-Hate Relationship with Thankfulness.
As the world pauses to say thanks in a few days, I pause to revisit my evolving relationship with Thankfulness.
First off, I must confess it was not natural for me. I was not born one of those positive people who wake up in the morning feeling thankful for another day. In fact, just the opposite. Waking up from a good night’s sleep to just dreading another day, I was uncomfortable with and grumbled about pretty much everything in my environment- the noise, the pollution, the population, the weather, traditions, friends, to name a few. In fact, family members had a few funny nicknames for my not-so-joyful demeanor!
My mother who was a very strong, extremely positive person, would often admonish me for not being thankful for all the things I did have. And she was right. I did have far more things to be thankful for than to grumble about. Yet her saying so would make it worse for me. I would feel terrible every time she sat me down and advised me to adopt a more positive, grateful approach to life. Thankfulness thus became a reminder of my inadequacy and I almost hated it for being so positive when I couldn’t!
Back then the complexities of the human mind and words like “anxiety,” “depression,” “teenage brain” and so on were unknown. Everyone simply interpreted my inability to be positive and grateful as a sign of being a “thankless” human being, thereby unintentionally adding insult to injury, leaving me now feeling ungrateful and guilty about it.
Now years later as I am beginning to understand human nature better, I realize that all emotions do not arise equally in everyone. Gratefulness, like greatness, is a quality that only some people are born with. As for the rest of us, to (mis)quote Shakespeare, we may arrive at it naturally over time or may need to “fake it till we make it,” since this is certainly an emotion worth nurturing for so many reasons.
For one thing, research studies on Gratefulness have revealed that feeling this emotion is good for health and creates happy states of mind (https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier). But even without science on its side, we know firsthand that it simply feels good to be around people who are appreciative of their blessings. They are more relaxed, less judgmental and easy to deal with.
But how do we get there if we do not honestly feel it?
Let us start by understanding the difference between Thankfulness and Gratefulness. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines thankfulness as an appreciation for “benefits received” which means there needs to be something beneficial to be thankful for. The object comes first, thankfulness follows.
Gratefulness, on the other hand is an unconditional attitude which has its roots in a deep trust in something bigger and intangible. One could be grateful even when one has seemingly nothing to be thankful for. A grateful person believes every experience is a gift in some way and goes through life feeling thankful for whatever comes along. In this case, the benefit is not in the thing but is in the attitude one takes towards that thing.
Such an attitude is supported by most of the spiritual traditions of the world that tell us that great things happen to people who are grateful. In other words, here gratefulness comes first, the object of one’s desire follows.
While this is easy for those born with such a temperament, for those of us who start out feeling neither thankful nor grateful, it can be a long road. The good news is that positive attitudes can be cultivated. As they say, where there is a will, there is a way- many ways, in fact. Studies confirming neuroplasticity tell us that we can create pathways of thought and emotion that we were not born with, but it does need regular and consistent practice. Although it may seem unnatural at first, it works all the same.
We start with thankfulness as a first step. Maintaining gratitude journals and making daily lists of what we appreciate about our life keeps us from our habitual fault-finding and resentment about things we cannot change. The regular and consistent practice of thankfulness gradually evolves into the deeper and more abiding feeling of gratefulness and brings about a more joyful and relaxed mindset. Over time, the internal wall of resistance and distrust against the world is transformed into a trusting, yielding, acceptance of life’s invitation to work with what is. Obstacles now become opportunities, criticism becomes feedback, all kinds of losses become gifts and new beginnings, leaving us with a life that we are thankful for every day.
Having started out as a grumbler, I am now a staunch believer in the gifts of a grateful heart whether one is born with it or grows into it. It is still often a challenge as I wrestle with my knee-jerk reactions, especially when I am served a plate of some unpleasant Karma,but I remind myself of the inspiring words of Pema Chodron, the wise teacher of Mindfulness: “Karma is your life giving you all the lessons you need to learn to open up some more.” So I stay the course and practice gratitude for the unseen blessings in the situation and life surprises me with how things end up.