To say I have mixed feelings about the spiritual practice of gratitude would be a gross understatement.
On one hand, giving thanks on a regular basis reminds us that much of what we enjoy is not due to our own efforts. Our ancestors gave us a foundation, our neighbors give us a community, and Nature provides the conditions that allow life to be sustained.
If we are doing well we owe much to the grace of the Gods… and sometimes to random chance. Further, gratitude focuses our attention on what we have instead of what we lack. That tends to make us happier.
On the other hand, being thankful for what we have can distract us from the fact that others do not have as much – or even enough – usually for the same out-of-their-control reasons as we have plenty.
And while having something is better than having nothing, giving thanks for leftovers and crumbs leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
If we enjoy much, giving thanks is the least we can do in return. But while gratitude is a good thing, taken too far it becomes toxic positivity.
I’m having a hard time being thankful this year.
I’m glad I’ve been healthy this year. I haven’t even had a cold, which is rare for me. But I have a hard time being thankful that I’ve avoided the pandemic when almost 1.4 million people have died from it, and many more will die before it’s over.
I’m glad I’ve remained employed this year. But I have a hard time being thankful when I lost income due to the pandemic, and especially when I have good friends who are still unemployed.
I’m glad I’ve been able to create online rituals this year, and I appreciate everyone who’s expressed their thanks for them. But I have a hard time being thankful when I haven’t been able to participate in a public ritual since February, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again.
I’m glad Joe Biden won the election, and I’m deeply and genuinely thankful to everyone who worked so hard to make that happen – and who are still working to preserve the integrity of the election. But I have a hard time being truly thankful after living through the past four years, and after seeing undeniable proof that the soul of America is rotten.
Resisting lowered expectations
None of us are entitled to a long, safe, and stress-free life. Many people in the world today are struggling just to stay alive. Our ancestors survived worse plagues, actual famines, and more unjust rulers. By historical standards, most of us still have pretty good lives, even in this horrible year. We know this, but we don’t feel it.
We don’t feel it because we’ve seen better. Most of us have experienced better ourselves. And while we know that comparing ourselves to others is a fool’s game (we only see the parts of their lives they choose to show us), we also know that wealth and power and all they bring have been funneled upwards for years.
And so something deep inside us resists the naïve calls of “just be thankful for what you have” “don’t look at anybody else” and “others have it so much worse” … and we recognize that the last two make for conflicting advice.
We resist the call to lower our expectations just so we can tell ourselves we’re doing fine.
Accepting reality doesn’t mean liking it
Reality is what it is. We don’t have to like it, we just have to deal with it. The rich and powerful can get away with denying reality for a while, but eventually even Donald Trump will have to accept it.
We’ve seen people deny the reality of Covid-19 and then die from Covid-19.
Rather than tell myself “this is fine” I’ve always preferred to say “this sucks, and here’s what I’m doing to make it better.” Or if I can’t make it better, “here’s what I’m doing to cope with it.”
I can’t tell you how much it bothers me when I hear people say something like “I’m so glad this terrible thing happened to me, because it brought these other good things into my life.” You can appreciate good things and be thankful for the people who provide and facilitate them while still recognizing that Covid, cancer, layoffs, and corrupt politicians are bad things. Good comes in spite of them, not because of them. Stockholm syndrome is real, and it’s not healthy.
I’m going to give thanks anyway
Back in March I wrote Why I Pray For an End to the Coronavirus. I continue to pray for an end to Covid-19, not because I think my prayers have any special power, but because I’m a Pagan and a polytheist and praying is what I do.
Likewise, I give thanks on a daily basis, because giving thanks is what I do.
I give thanks for my family of blood and my family of spirit. I give thanks that me and mine are safe and healthy, mostly. I give thanks that my Gods and my ancestors are part of my life.
I want to acknowledge the good things that are in my life. I want to acknowledge that much of what I enjoy does not come from my own efforts, or at least, not entirely from them.
But I want to do that without pretending that everything is fine, without forgetting that while I have enough not everyone does, and without forgetting that life can be so much better than it is in 2020.
2020: an unfortunate Thanksgiving
Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for several years know I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving. Whatever problems there are with the Thanksgiving origin story – and there are many – for me it’s always been about family, food, and football. As I’ve moved farther away – and as key family members have died – I’ve made adjustments.
This year will have many adjustments.
As always, I will do what must be done.
And I do them in the sincere hope that this time next year I will be happily and joyously thankful.