Defining gratitude

Gratitude is an outward expression of appreciation to an outside force or person. Thankfulness is an inward feeling. I’m thankful that Joe was nice to me. I’m grateful to Joe for making me feel appreciated. Gratitude gives credit to Joe; thankfulness is focused on me and how it made me feel.

Let’s begin with this idea I see over and over again about gratitude, “Stop comparing yourself to others and be grateful for what you have.” It seems easy enough, right? But here I am, your friendly neighborhood Libra who just can’t leave well enough alone. 

When we say, stop comparing yourself to others and be grateful for what you have, aren’t we still comparing? Aren’t we just then, comparing ourselves to people who have less than we do? If we’re grateful for food on the table, aren’t we comparing ourselves to people who don’t? If we’re grateful for warm shelter, aren’t we comparing ourselves to people out in the cold? Is this only something we can say when we come from a place of relative privilege? 

The short answer is no, being grateful for warmth, food, and the necessities is legit. The difference is in how you come by this feeling. Did you have to stop to reflect on people who have it worse than you do? Smacks of privilege (ok, it reeks of privilege). Or did you wake up with joy in your heart and the sun on your face and say, thanks, (supreme being), this is rad, and I am grateful. I’m striving for the latter every day. 

I learned earlier this year that anger is like an iceberg. Google this, it’s neat. Anger is what we express when we don’t actively cope with other ‘negative’ emotions, like frustration, disappointment, helplessness, and so on. The next time you’re angry, examine why. We see the iceberg, the anger, expressed outwardly, above the surface, and what’s hidden underwater is the emotion we have yet to confront appropriately. Like I said, Google. (but not yet, read my post first, please). People who know, like, really smart things about psychology, can, like, totally tell you more about this than I can.

So, is gratitude like that? Think of the last time you felt grateful. Was that all? Was it relative? 

I took a few weeks to observe my own gratitude and what I do with it. I act on my emotions – not always, and not recklessly – but much of what I do is driven by emotion. 

It was never just gratitude. It was gratitude and fear. It was gratitude and anger. It was gratitude and guilt. It was gratitude and hopefulness. It was gratitude and love.

I was serving food at a warming shelter and a man said to me that the meal he was eating that night was the best meal he had all week. I was grateful to be able to provide this meal for him. I was reminded to be grateful for the stocked pantry I have at home. More than anything, though, I was angry as all get-out. My emotions took a sharp turn, and my gratitude spun to anger as I considered the injustices of a system that fails miserably for this man and so many others. 

After a family member received news that she is starting treatment for cancer, I felt grateful to our family caring for her and being with her at doctors’ appointments. I am grateful to her doctors for using their talent to help her recover. I observed thankfulness for health insurance, transportation to the hospital, and my available time. I’ll simply say that this is gratitude and love.

So here’s the deal, in experiencing gratitude (however we get there), we’re giving credit to the people and forces in our life that have created our fortune. You can’t keep that to yourself. 

I can use all of these other emotions that come along with gratitude to guide what I do to effect change in others’ gratitude journeys.

My anger at the warming shelter? Yeah, I am going to keep making and serving food, but maybe I need to put energy into volunteering with a policy advocacy organization too. Being grateful for my health insurance and not having to worry about those fears? Maybe I need to be voting for and campaigning for people who believe that your ability to afford an insurance premium shouldn’t dictate your access to anti-seizure medication. Feeling guilty about doing the important work in my home that doesn’t add anything to our bank account? Maybe I need to actively figure out a way to shift us to a culture that celebrates being and nurturing decent human beings before it celebrates everything expensive.

What are you grateful for and how can you use this turn yourself into an agent of gratitude for others? 

National Alliance to End Homelessness
Family Promise
Jersey Shore Dream Center
CancerCare Co-Payment Assistance Foundation
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
Jersey Shore Rescue Mission

Published by Julie

i believe in the Oxford comma. i will die on that hill if i have to. everything else is negotiable.

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