My Fraught Relationship With Gratitude

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Thanksgiving is upon us, and I find myself pondering the potential risks of being *too* grateful. Don’t worry. This isn’t heading into any kind of preachy sanctimony about how you have to do even gratitude in the exact right way or it’s wrong.

I do find a lot of value in gratitude, and have even written on this blog before about some of my practices. But like many other things in my life, it’s a subject about which I can overthink and also be irrational. See, I have a superstition my logical mind can’t seem to shake, and that is the law of non-mentionables. It goes like this. As soon as you mention something, if it’s bad it happens, and if it’s good it goes away. Everyone knows you don’t talk about it when your baseball team’s pitcher has thrown seven no-hit innings. Say the fact out loud and you’ve guaranteed it won’t last through nine. That jinx is on you. Likewise, don’t dare to utter hopes for an injury-free season for the best players. You might as well just summon the injury demon already.

This law was reinforced in my mind by a cursed Buick Skylark I owned in my young adult years. I had driven it for about six months with nary a problem until the day I told a friend, as I was getting into the driver’s seat, “This has been a really good car for me.” Then it wouldn’t start when I turned the key. On a road trip a couple of years after this incident, I made the mistake of saying out loud, “The Skylark’s done really well on this trip.” I kid you not, only two minutes later a loud thump sounded under the hood and the headlights started to dim. It was a broken belt, of course. It was as if that car was sent into my life to teach me a very specific lesson about keeping my yap shut and not looking good fortune directly in the face.

Anyway, I try not to be ungrateful. But I stop to consider exactly what it’s safe to express thanks for. Am I okay with the object of my gratitude disappearing in the immediate future? I’m (deep breath) thankful for my house because I’ve already gotten so many years out of it. Even if it’s destroyed tomorrow, it’s deposited enough in the blessing bank for me to cover the loss. That’s an example of how I try to safeguard myself.

I try not to let my superstition overpower me because I don’t want to be a sour, dour ingrate who can’t appreciate stuff. I suppose, according to my magical beliefs, never giving thanks would keep me safe-ish. But safe in an unpleasant and sparse spiritual bunker kind of way.

So I’m trying to be brave enough to notice the good. One practice I’ve implemented over the past year is to consciously increase the number of times I verbally express my appreciation of other people. I don’t fake it, ever. I only say it when I really mean it, but I’m making more of an effort to make sure folks know I don’t take them or their deeds for granted. It helps me, too, keep my perspective when it might be someone who perhaps occasionally grates on my nerves or pisses me off in some way. The fact that I’ve thanked them out loud on other occasions has given their good deeds a more firm anchor in my psyche, and thus provides some balance.

I know the real key to gratitude, what I might always be working to master, is in acceptance of impermanence. The fact is that my Skylark had been a good car for those first six months. The betrayal of my faith — er, um, I mean the coincidental timing of it’s first mechanical problem under my ownership didn’t cancel out those six months. And no car lasts forever with no problems. Maybe for me to make an effective spiritual practice of gratitude without tying myself up in knots, I need to learn to ground myself more in the moment and avoid, to echo Wendell Berry, “taxing my life with forethought of grief.” Be grateful in the moment for the moment no matter what the next one might bring.

I’m not going to express confidence that I can learn to do so, because that would be a sure jinx on myself. But perhaps, occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I can notice I’m doing it.

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