As the sun comes up on yet another day,
I can look at this screen and earnestly say.
I am grateful, for my early AM cup of tea,
and my infuriation of a globe that doesn’t always like me
For I am alive despite the ache
and so are the leaves on my fiddle leaf fig tree.
Welcome, Dear reader, to the 19th issue of Dis-Course. The topic of this issue is Gratitude. Though it is often spoken of in the same breath as mental health easy cures, this particular word has some facts behind the fable. I’ve found the concept of gratitude a complex topic to broach. I find it difficult to pinpoint the nature of gratitude. Is it a feeling, a state, or a predisposition? A premonition? An infliction or an inflexion in your perception? The science believes that it is the evolutionary descendant of reciprocity. We feel grateful for the good things others do for us in order to return the kindness and to promote prosocial behaviour. It has also been a very effective mechanism to identify selfish individuals who are not favourable in communities that rely on cooperation for survival. As we have evolved past the age of hunting and gathering and well into the age of social media and capitalism, we must adapt our mechanisms of gratitude in ways that still hold up in the 21st century. Let's discuss.
We often compare ourselves to others. This is no new phenomenon. However, with all the best moments of people's lives readily available to us in the form of an Instagram or LinkedIn post our perception becomes skewed. We feel that what we have accomplished as much or the life that we lead is not as interesting or exciting as others. We have more exposure to examples of people who are doing ‘better’ than us, so we feel that we are failing. In this process, our mind becomes accustomed to looking at what we lack rather than what we have. Our eyes adjust to seeing the negative space. We spend so much time and energy striving toward some career milestone or some prerequisite of happiness such as a partner or lots of money, that if and when we get to these points the achievement feels hollow. Practising gratitude adjusts our eyes to the positive space. The more time we spend training our perception the easier it is to refocus. There are methods such as gratitude journaling which have proven useful for many. I would recommend watching this video for further information.
The Release of Regret and Resentment
In my experience, gratitude is the release - not the absence - of regret. We will never be truly exempt from regret. A life lived will inevitably have pathways untaken that we will wonder the outcomes of. Practising gratitude is the acknowledgement -followed by the release- of the “what if’s” and the “if only's”. It is the acknowledgement that the junctions for the other paths are in the rearview mirror. The road we are on bears beauty that ought to be admired. While regret applies to our hindsight, resentment can be sourced by how we feel about the present. There will always be things to resent. I find five minutes watching the news enough to dull any sense of contentment I have with the world. I hardly have a cure for the ennui that comes with awareness. Though perhaps, spending time absorbing the good helps dull the ache of the bad.
I met a woman at the bar I work at today. She had pistachio green eyeshadow, lime green glasses and emerald green nails. When she commented on noticing how hard I was working I joked that I was amazed I hadn’t yet dropped one of my overly full trays. She put an emerald finger to her lips and shushed me, knocking on the wooden table. The next time I went to their table was for the bill. I complimented her eyeshadow and told her she had the energy of a woodland creature or a fairy [a comment I assumed she would appreciate given the aforementioned act of superstition]. She said in a thick Dutch accent that it is because she doesn't care about anything. “I look around me, and everywhere I look there is good,” she said. “I know there is also bad but” she pressed an emerald thumb on the corner of the table “I don't put my thumb on that stuff.” misusing the phrase to mean she didn't dwell on the bad. The green lady seemingly embraced the practice of gratitude. She notices the good and “puts her thumb on that” instead of holding onto and worrying about the bad. “So” she stated with trace amounts of modesty left to be missed, “I have a strong character. I am strong and have good energy, as you can see.”
When I was 16 I was training to get my scuba diving licence. One of the tests I had to pass was to continue to breathe underwater through the regulator after taking off my mask and having my face fully submerged. I failed it multiple times. Each time I would panic and despite having the air I needed to breathe literally in my mouth I would feel like I was suffocating a couple of metres below the surface of the sea. Gratitude feels inaccessible sometimes. In theory, we know that it is all around us. If only we breathe it in. But in the panic of life, it feels unobtainable. So we have to train ourselves to be able to look past the fear and the sense of suffocation and to simply breathe in.
It’s human to become blind to the good at times. In fact, I recently threw myself a pretty big pity party. Following a difficult time with some relationships, worrying about the health of a loved one, feeling useless and inadequate and inconsequential and all these other negative emotions that seem to come as a package deal, I started to feel very alone. In a city which once harboured a vast majority of my favourite people in the world, I suddenly felt I had no one to turn to and no shoulder to cry on. I felt that I would be burdening anyone I reached out to. So I spent a few days marinating in this dismal concoction of my own design. A two-minute text conversation followed by a cup of mint tea on a terrace at midnight with a good friend promptly shattered this self-inflicted illusion of isolation. I felt deep gratitude for that cup of tea and for my friend as he proved me wrong.
Dissatisfaction brings with it a pair of very effective horse goggles. In feeling lonely we may not notice the people around us, perpetuating these notions of being alone or uncared for. Sometimes we feel that because the burden of our own worries is so heavy on us that it is unfair to inflict it on others. Fortunately, people -ourselves included- are often a lot stronger than we give them credit for. And while empathy is a fantastic mechanism, no one will really feel the weight of our personal afflictions as we do. So you might as well get a little help to lighten the load.
The Little Things
We tend to think that in order to be happy we have to have the big things. For some that is the white-picket-fence; spouse, house, career combo. For some the big things look different [for me it's a few published books and maybe a Pulitzer or two]. Yet when I am listing things that I am grateful for I often find myself looking at the smaller stuff. My plants, my kettle, the fact I remembered to take the bins out last night. Of course, I feel grateful for the big too. My family, their health, my deliciously insane friends. But I find that when you look at the small you never really run out of things to be grateful for. The more you look the more you find. Kind of like walking around in a forest. From afar you will see all the trees which are infinitely beautiful and green and the closer you get the more little creatures you will start to notice. A mushroom here and there, the way the moss grows on the trees, maybe a cool-looking snail.
Gratitude is all about perspective. Big things, little things, negative space, positive space. Feel free to adjust your eyes.