There’s a very old Hebrew Psalm that’s been circling in my mind lately. It’s an ancient prayer that is definitely not filled with praise or thanksgiving, instead, lament:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (from Psalm 137)
In other words: How are we to be grateful or express thanksgiving when it is demanded of us? Or, maybe even more true, when we demand it of ourselves?
The list is long of things that can make gratitude feel arduous and disingenuous:
- Racism, sexism, ableism, capitalism, colonialism, consumerism — an endless list of “isms.”
- Family dynamics so tense that silence feels like your wisest choice — but also the most frustrating one.
- Fears about money.
- Fears about global warming.
- A growing awareness about the ways in which the subconscious belief that you are “too much” is impacting, well, pretty much everything.
- A resurfaced, painful memory from your childhood that keeps playing itself like a tape in your head, endlessly looping.
- Hard parenting moments (if not full-on seasons, even years).
- Political strife.
- Uh, a pandemic!
- Too many unspoken thoughts and feelings in your most important relationship(s).
- A general feeling of anxiety and lostness; an internal swirling/churning that doesn’t seem to let up no matter what you try and frankly, doesn’t make a bit of sense to you.
- Feeling like your life is in parts and pieces — disjointed, disparate, unhooked.
- No matter how big, even loving, the group of people is, you still feel alone.
I could go on.
Asking the Hebrew people to sing songs when in captivity? You trying to feel grateful with this list? Impossible. Ridiculous. Unreasonable. Beyond capacity.
You feel the pressure to express, even feel gratitude when really, somedays, the best you can do is get out of bed.
To pretend like all of these things (and so many more) don’t actually exist — or to sweep them into some dusty corner for the day — so that you can smile and say the right things and feign gratitude is exhausting.
Feigned gratitude is also nearly-always demanded of us. Especially as women.
- Just keep smiling (like Dori in Finding Nemo — “just keep swimming…”)
- Make sure things are OK for everyone else.
- Don’t upset the apple cart.
- Keep your feelings to yourself.
- Don’t complain.
- And be grateful, will you? After all, things could be worse!
This last bullet point is a very slippery slope. I hear it often from clients (and even within myself at times). “Who am I to complain, compared to the problems that other people have?” “I hate to even talk about this; it feels so insignificant in the scheme of things.” “Really, I’m lucky; I’ve no right to not be grateful.”
Here’s the thing: all of those things can be true, may be true, but so are your struggles, your fears, your anxieties, your family dynamics, your challenges, and your exhaustion!
You are not all good or all bad, all happy or all sad, all grateful or completely ungrateful. You are a complex and amazing woman who holds a multitude of realities and emotions and experiences and roles and responsibilities and heartbreaks and hopes — all at the same time!
This, my friend, is where gratitude can at least begin: acknowledge just how vast and deep all of you actually is — not only the “acceptable” parts but also (and maybe even more) those parts that you have the tendency to sweep into those dusty corners.
Gratitude has to be, gets to be, inclusive: the hard stuff as well as the beautiful, the ache as well as the celebration, the failure as well as the success, the loneliness as well as the love, the reality as well as the hope.
I hate to be too reductionist, but here’s what I believe:
Acknowledging what is true is gratitude.
Honestly name the reality of who you are,
and what you feel,
and all that you experience,
and all that makes you crazy,
and all that you wish you could change,
and every single thing you wish for, hope for, desire, and deserve.
That list? Those things? All of them? They are you!
When I consider you? All of you? Well, all I feel is grateful. Yes — you are conflicted and confused and complicated. Yes — you are generous and genuine and gracious. Yes — you get angry and frustrated and irritable. Yes — you feel afraid and worried and anxious. Yes — you are trusting and optimistic and willing to try yet again. Amazing!
The ability to take in, see, hold, and honor all of you is what generates gratitude. Acknowledging what is true. Not forced. Not demanded. And maybe even somewhat unexpected. It’s grace, really.
So, 3 ways to step more deeply into gratitude?
- Acknowledge the complexity and beauty and conflictedness of all of you. Then you can better allow the same in others.
- Allow the pain of the world and its beauty. Then you can feel into just how deep and vast and infinite your emotions truly are. (One of them might just be gratitude.) YOU are that deep and vast and infinite!
- Begin to name the parts of you that you’ve worked so hard to overcome or at least keep hidden. Yes, it can feel overwhelming and scary; but it is the very thing that invites you to step into a story (and life) that is honest and expansive and true and real and raw and vulnerable and tender and fierce. And that? Mmmm. Definitely gratitude!
It is true: there is MUCH that gives us cause to be ungrateful — as it should! Endless internal and external messages that deny our value and worth. Patriarchy. Objectification. Sexual trafficking. Domestic violence. Pay and leadership inequity. Misogyny. The list is l o n g.
But this is also true: in the midst of all this, still, YOU are you!
Mysteriously, amazingly, serendipitously, incomprehensibly — you survive, your story endures, your wisdom persists, your heart loves.
I don’t know how else to respond, but to say thank you.
I’m hopeful that you can say the same — to yourself and for yourself, in grateful response to all of who you are — even now, even still, in the midst.
May it be so.
Every week I write a letter to my subscribers. There’s no skimming the surface; instead, it’s filled with truth-telling and diving deep. I’d love for you to have it. And I’d be super-grateful. Every Monday morning — your inbox — from my heart to yours. SUBSCRIBE.