We’ve eaten turkey, we’ve said our thanks, and now we are headed full force into the Christmas season. November seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye, and it’s hard to believe Christmas is less than a month away. Although Thanksgiving struggles not to be engulfed by the ever extending Christmas season, I like that both of these holidays mark a period of intentional gratitude.
Gratitude. Great thinkers, philosophers, researchers, and spiritual leaders alike will tell you that the key to peace and joy in your life is a practice of gratitude. It makes sense… if we spend time pondering what we are grateful for, it cultivates contentment rather than discontentment, and we are less likely to ruminate over life’s shortcomings. It is an obvious and practical life lesson. Recently, I started keeping a gratitude journal, and I am sincerely amazed at the difference in my spirit after I sit and write for a few minutes. This gratitude stuff is no joke.
But let’s be honest. Sometimes- often times- we aren’t that successful in maintaining a practice of gratitude. The annual holiday marker of intentional thankfulness comes and goes. We make resolutions about how we are going to practice more gratitude and concentrate on all we do have rather than focusing on what we we don’t have. We know having a thankful spirit is good for the soul, and what is good for the soul is good for the body. We know this. But let’s be honest… sometimes our ingratitude swallows any sliver of gratitude.
Are you ungrateful?
What are you not grateful for?
What are the memories in your life that you wish you could squeeze your eyes shut and make go away? Who are the people in your life that you wish you could snap your fingers and they would vanish? What are the experiences in your life that make you want to shake your fist and cry out in sadness and despair, “Why, God? Why?”
Sometimes it’s hard to feel grateful, and I don’t think that is necessarily a shortcoming on our part. I think it’s because sometimes life is unfair and difficult.
A few years ago, my little family was going through a particularly difficult season with no end in sight. I remember feeling as if there was a battle going on inside my mind as I tried to practice gratitude for all we did have while at the same time wanting to scream, “Someone take this cup from me! I do not want it and I did not ask for it!” I became exhausted by the clash of voices. Then a third voice entered the frey which told me that life wasn’t so bad and a lot of people have it worse and what was wrong with me that I couldn’t just be grateful. Why couldn’t I just be grateful? The guilt I felt over my seeming ingratitude felt more oppressive than the trying circumstances I was facing. I felt painfully stuck.
Gratitude is the pathway to joy, indeed. But comparative suffering and self shaming are not the pathways to gratitude. Shaming yourself into gratitude is not healing. Using gratitude to silence and bypass your sincere grief and pain is not helpful. Sometimes- often times– the healthiest thing we can do is to admit I’m unthankful for this. I don’t want this.
Yes, we are called to be grateful, and, yes, gratitude fosters contentment and joy. But we cannot use gratitude as a tool to silence our despair. That is not the purpose of gratitude. Admitting you are not thankful for the diagnosis, the unemployment, the loss, the failed relationship is the first step in surrendering those burdens you were never intended to solely bear. You cannot surrender something you insist upon denying exists. It is important to acknowledge and speak your sadness and anger because it is only then that you can let go of them. It is only then that you can be free of them. It is only then you can cultivate true and honest gratitude. We can feel grateful for the healing and still not feel grateful for the hurt.
During this holiday season you may have so much to be grateful for, but you also may have some true heartache that occupies every thought and moment. What are you ungrateful for today? What life event are you unthankful for? Silenced hurt metastasizes; shared hurt heals. Speak the heartache. Surrendering your hurt by admitting and sharing it with someone begins the healing process and opens the door to freedom and thanksgiving.
Having trouble feeling grateful? Ask yourself, “What do I need to surrender?” What do you need to acknowledge today so that healing can begin?