The Limits of Gratitude

Gratitude is having a moment in our culture. Lifestyle gurus, including Oprah, tout the positive effects of expressing gratitude through letters or journal entries. Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts spent 60 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and spawned journals, notepads, and other tools with which you can literally count your blessings. Studies suggest that gratitude improves mental and physical health, relationships, the quality of your sleep, and more.

Gratitude is one of the few spiritual practices I engage in naturally and regularly, making a point of giving thanks throughout the day, for the lovely way sunlight filters through branches or a full pantry from which I can feed my children.

Even so, the practice of gratitude has limits and pitfalls. Critics point out that in our rush to be grateful, we can gloss over or deny the hard parts of life, and that gratitude can lead not to greater connection with others, but merely to self-satisfied, self-absorbed complacency.

In a New York Times op ed several weeks ago, Barbara Ehrenreich noted that gratitude often makes the most sense for those in a position of privilege, implying that those on society’s margins should simply be grateful for what they have instead of demanding more. “Suppose you were an $8-an-hour Walmart employee who saw her base pay elevated this year, by company fiat, to $9 an hour,” Ehrenreich wrote. “Should you be grateful to the Waltons, who are the richest family in America? Or to Walmart’s chief executive, whose annual base pay is close to $1 million and whose home sits on nearly 100 acres of land in Bentonville, Ark.? Grateful people have been habitually dismissed as ‘chumps,’ and in this hypothetical case, the term would seem to apply.” Gratitude, in other words, can convince people who deserve better that they should pipe down and just be happy for what they have.

While Ehrenreich writes from a secular perspective, her point about gratitude fostering complacency in the face of human suffering, when solidarity and revolution are more appropriately called for, could also apply to certain Christian expressions of gratitude. The call for gratitude in all circumstances is not so far from the horrific theology that Christian masters preached to their slaves and that oppressors of many stripes preach to the oppressed—be grateful for what you have, however little, for though you suffer now, you will get your reward in heaven. Theology suggesting that we should be grateful for pain and suffering because our misery enhances God’s majesty or because we might learn something in the end, rather than railing against pain and suffering as offending the God who made this world and its creatures good, is dangerous nonsense.

My friend, writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, has brought a critique of ubiquitous gratitude closer to home. “It troubles my conscience,” Griffith wrote, “to imagine how what I hold up as moments of joy or every day ‘blessings’ might be perceived by the friend who is grieving, or lonely, or heartbroken, the friend who is reaching out for God’s hand in the dark and coming up empty, or the friend who is meeting God in despair while I’m claiming to have met him over coffee. I should be grateful, yes. But beware how quickly an exhibition of gratitude begins to look like self-righteousness, privilege, even naivety.”

This is where I am contemplating the gifts and limits of gratitude these days—within my small life defined largely by the four walls of my home and the needs of my family. Frequently, my feelings of anxiety, boredom, frustration, or fatigue are followed by guilt and shame, because gratitude for the sunset’s serene orange glow or my child’s exuberant story telling fails to snap me out of my funk. My gratitude is genuine but, contrary to the assurance of all those gratitude experts, does little to improve my mood or outlook. Gratitude doesn’t make me happier.

And maybe that’s okay. Ehrenreich worries that the modern gratitude movement is “all about you, and how you can feel better.” Gratitude can be not merely self-absorbed, but foster willful blindness to the complications and costs of human interactions. There’s a reason that parents’ warmest feelings of gratitude for our children often come when they are asleep; it’s far easier to be grateful for my kids when I’m not beset by their demands, their moods, their noise, their mess, and yes, their ingratitude. There’s a reason that every time I’ve been told by a woman with grown children to “cherish every moment with your children, it goes so fast!” I suspect they are trying to ease their own guilt for how they failed to cherish every moment of their own years raising children.

It’s hard to be truly grateful in the slog and tedium of raising children—a dynamic that blogger Glennon Melton famously explored in her viral blog post “Don’t Carpe Diem.” For me, gratitude comes more easily when I’m looking back; in reminiscence, my gratitude is genuine, but it makes me sadder, not happier. I am, yes, so grateful for the people my children are growing into. But I am also heartbroken that their wild baby giggles, their garbled toddler speech, and their rounded little-kid features are gone forever.

Did I pay enough attention, did I deliberately practice gratitude, back when those giggles and funny quips and downy cheeks were part of my every day? I did, oh I did. But one of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a mother is that paying attention and practicing gratitude do nothing to slow things down, nothing to assuage the ache of missing what’s been left behind, my babies and my toddlers and my gap-toothed grade schoolers. Gratitude will likely do nothing to assuage the ache 20 years from now when I’m missing the bright-eyed big kids—more themselves every day—who sit across the table from me at dinner these days.

Gratitude doesn’t make me happy. It just makes me more aware of what I have lost and what I have to lose.

If this is sounding kind of depressed and dour well then, so be it. Because the danger for the Christian of today’s slickly marketed gratitude is that it tempts us to aim primarily for our own happiness and satisfaction. And Christianity has never been about making ourselves happy and satisfied.

Our faith is in a God of love and compassion, a God who invites those who are weary to lay down our burdens. But our faith also requires us to step out each day into a world where the possibilities of grace and pain coexist, with our tender, exposed selves armed only with light and the assurance that God has been and will be wherever we are headed.

So I daily offer my crooked bones and worn muscles, my hands and knees and back, my mind and words, my labor and my love to children who are at once my greatest gain and my greatest loss. As far as I can figure it, this is how God has invited me to lose my life for God’s sake, every day, and what I feel about it is far more complicated than gratitude.

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