A Few Unfinished Thoughts about Gratitude

I’ve had quite a few people ask about my blog, since I haven’t posted since September. The reality is that most of what I post here is pre-writing for my book. I put up ideas I’m having trouble hashing out on my own, and your responses help me see where I’m going. Lately, the book hasn’t required much pre-writing, plus it is taking up all of my writing energy. That’s a good thing for the book! Once I’m out of this rather intense overhaul of my book structure, I will probably get back to more frequent blogging. In the meantime, here are some back-of-the-napkin scrawlings about gratitude.

I used to think that gratitude was about being thankful for the small things, about shrinking my desire to fit what I have in front of me. That’s not gratitude at all. If I love someone, I don’t just give her ONLY small gifts. But I do sometimes give small gifts. Imagine if I gave that friend a small gift, and she immediately assumed that, since the gift was small, she should stop wanting the larger gift she’d had her heart set on. Would you call that gratitude? I wouldn’t. In fact, I might even call it ingratitude. It feels… minimizing to me as the giver. There’s no joy in it. No joy in receiving a gift and letting it disappoint me for any subsequent gifts. No joy in giving a gift only to have the person think I’m capable of less than they had hoped rather than more.

Gratitude doesn’t want less, it wants more.  It simply doesn’t expect more of what’s in front of it because it knows the real, ongoing needs of life are more than any one thing or person or moment can fill. It loves the thing in the moment for being the thing in the moment, but may continue to long for other, greater things.

Abundance and loss both grow a space in me for more. More joy, more love.

I went shopping for a dining room table this weekend. I went to the fancy furniture store to get ideas, and I promptly fell in love with this stunning oval walnut table with a beautiful architectural pedestal under it. It’s a work of art. It also costs almost as much as I paid for my car. I’ve been daydreaming about this table for 24 hours since I met it, imagining how I thought it might look in my dining room, thinking about how it would feel to sit on it.

I didn’t measure my dining room until a full 24 hours after my little shopping excursion. Not before, not even immediately after I fell in love with the walnut table. As it turns out, the oval table is about 6” longer than my current table. Not a lot, but enough that I’d have to get rid of my bar stools by the counter and even then the whole thing would be cramped. I put my existing table where the oval table might realistically go, and it makes the whole space (living room and kitchen included) feel cramped and cluttered. I don’t care how beautiful the table is, if it makes the space around it feel more cluttered and noisy, it’s not good for my dining room.

I thought, “Well maybe if I move the book case out of the dining room…” And then I’m moving other things to find a spot for the rather large book case that I actually really like in the dining room. Worst of all, if I move my dining table away from the window, I lose one of my favorite features of this home—a spot to sit at the table where I have a view of the mountains. I don’t want to lose the beautiful view I already have, no matter how pretty the table is.

The beautiful walnut table is a no-go. But the only reason I know that is because I know my dining room better now. It took longing for the walnut table to get me to really SEE my dining room, what its potential is and what its constraints are. I’m grieving the walnut table a little bit. It just felt so RIGHT when I saw it. The urgency to capture something so beautiful and hold it in my life can sometimes be mistaken for a feeling of destiny or fate. It feels like the right thing, so it must be. But the truth of it is that sometimes finding something more beautiful than what I’d hoped for isn’t about grasping onto the beautiful thing but about growing my imagination. It’s hard to let go of the beautiful thing that is better than what I had imagined before. It is easy to think that, since it has stretched my imagination beyond its previous limitations, there is nothing conceivably better. It’s easy to fret that giving up the beautiful thing means going back to my old dreams. When, in fact, the whole point of the beautiful table may have been to stretch the dreams to begin with, to give me eyes to see the potential, to really see the space I have ready to receive the beautiful table.

2 thoughts on “A Few Unfinished Thoughts about Gratitude”

  1. Hi Amy! This is an interesting take on gratitude and it’s not the direction I was expecting you to go! I like it and it’s good food for thought.

    I’ve been struggling a lot with gratitude lately. These days, every time someone tells me I’m lucky I immediately bristle–mainly because the word “lucky” has started to feel like a weapon used against me by doctors. As in, ‘you’re lucky you’re not paralyzed, so any other medical concerns you have after this accident aren’t worth my time’. Or, ‘if it wasn’t for us you would have been in a diaper for the rest of your life, so you don’t have a right to complain about anything you mistakenly think we’ve done wrong.’ Or, ‘you’re lucky you’re not paralyzed, so anything else that you may fear losing as a result of this accident doesn’t matter’. As though now that I fall into the category of People Who Are Lucky Not To Be Paralyzed, the sum total of my hopes and plans for life should consist of lying passively on the couch thinking angelically about how lucky I am and never doing anything again.

    No one cares more than I do about not being paralyzed! But being grateful on one level doesn’t stop me from also being angry about the negligence of my doctors, or cranky and irritable because everything hurts, or scared that maybe I’ve lost all the things I care about doing.

    Lucky, because I didn’t die falling off that cliff. Unlucky, because it was such a weird and unlikely accident to begin with. Lucky, because they were able to diagnose a potentially dangerous problem before it became something truly catastrophic. Unlucky, because the follow-up care was so utterly terrible. Lucky, because I can still do so many things if I really try. Unlucky, because I can’t even stand up from the couch without pain (or sit on the couch and watch TV without pain, for that matter).

    So where does gratitude belong in all of this? Am I somehow obligated to feel so grateful to have avoided the worst possibilities that I’m unreasonable or ungrateful to desire something more like a life I can recognize myself in? Since I’m not paralyzed, I’m not supposed to ask or try for something better? Surely not. Yet that is the attitude that I get from other people, especially the ones whose job it supposedly is to help people with recovery. Why do people even become medical professionals, if they don’t think their patients’ recovery is relevant or important?

    Anyway, that was probably more of a comment than you were looking for but apparently it was sitting in there waiting for me to say it. Gratitude can sometimes be very complicated. 🙂

    I’m a little sad that you didn’t get your walnut table. It sounds glorious. But maybe you can find another walnut table, just as beautiful, that is the right size to fit in your spot with the view of the mountains.


  2. Sara, this is heartbreaking and beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this! I’m really sorry that things are at a point where you have trouble recognizing yourself in your own life. I’m sorry your pain hasn’t been heard and that it’s been discounted as ungrateful. I’m with you in hoping for more and better–you deserve not just a life that you recognize yourself in with minimal pain, but one where you thrive.

    This reminds me of some situations I’ve been in recently where I’m on the “helping” side. I have to admit that most of the time, a friend complaining of very real and very insurmountable problems 1. scares me (because I don’t know what to do) and 2. makes me feel like what I *have* done is unnoticed (or, if I’m being honest, inadequate. Which it often is. I can’t fix the whole problem. Which takes me back to #1.) I’m gradually learning that helping others often benefits me more than it benefits them–I get the satisfaction of having done something good, and I can walk away feeling proud that I “did my job” or “did a good thing” while that person may still be grappling alone with problems beyond my ability or willingness to help.

    At the end of the day, we all want to be seen–we want our pain to be seen, we want our successes on behalf of others to be seen, we want our compassionate hearts to be seen. And sometimes those things run contrary to one another–being elated about my successful helping can feel like it minimizes the pain that is still there. But it seems like the more urgent need to be seen HAS TO be the need of the person who is hurting, the person who is coming from a place of deficit. There’s a verse I’ve carried with me for years, trying to grok the meaning in my heart. Jesus is speaking to the pharisees, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13) I love the French word for mercy, “misericord.” It’s like letting the strings of my heart vibrate to the sound of someone else’s misery. Empathy might be a better word. When I elevate my helping above my mercy, my helping can become a demand rather than a gift to the person I’m trying to help. It turns an opportunity for me to recognize the hurting person into a demand for them to recognize and validate my help. “Sacrifice…” can be about seeing my help instead of seeing the ongoing hurt.

    I read somewhere recently (I’ll have to dig up the quote) that someone else’s suffering is a gift TO ME. That has stuck with me. It is true. When I successfully sit with someone in their pain instead of running from it in fear, it enlarges my heart and enriches my life. There is a profound love that can only exist when you live through hard things WITH someone, allow yourself to really feel their longing for more in the face of daunting obstacles.

    So, thank YOU for your story. Thank YOU for your vulnerability. Thank YOU for loving life the hard way, reaching for more and better when everyone around you is telling you to be satisfied. I have nothing but respect and admiration for your longing. You’re not selfish, you’re calling us all to something better.

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