“Have gratitude,” old New Age gurus and profit-seeking profits tell us. “Be grateful for what you have” is pounded into our ears by people that want to force gratitude. If you’re suspicious people are telling you to be grateful, your suspicions are well-founded.
But let’s step away from that and ask how we can use gratitude. How it can make our lives better – when we take ownership of it.
Consider an adverse situation – not hard in the age of COVID-19 – can you find something that lets you feel gratitude? Is there a lesson there, a surprising benefit, a lucky coincidence? Is there something, in short, promising you can appreciate no matter how awful things are?
Ferreting out what is truly good in a situation changes your relationship to the situation. Finding something good develops an intimacy with the world, even when it’s not a pleasant part of the world.
In my practices of Buddhism, often informed by Pema Chödrön, she emphasized how unpleasant things became transformative. To feel adversity, to breathe in black unhappiness, was to get to know yourself and the world. It was not pleasant, it was not expected to be – but the experience of diving into bad feelings made life more real.
Gratitude, even in bad times, lets us find a new connection to the world. By having to look at a situation and find something truly and honestly good, we experience intimacy. Life becomes more real at that moment.
In turn, by practicing gratitude in bad situations, we can bring it to the rest of our life. We can appreciate things easier, take down our defenses a bit and get real. It may hurt, it may be minor, but our lives belong more to us.
It’s just gratitude on our terms. Though perhaps we can be grateful to the fake gurus and hope-peddling con artists. Their lies are a great way to point out the real value of gratitude.