I’ve heard for years that I should cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Gratitude will supposedly:

  • lead to a longer, healthier life;
  • ease stress;
  • improve all my relationships, especially my relationship with myself;
  • improve my future in all ways.

It’s also been a running joke between an old friend and me that an “attitude of gratitude” is the last thing on Earth we want to cultivate–especially when it feels like life has kicked us in the teeth. She’s spent the last three years navigating life through the dissolution of a long marriage, plus caregiving for her aging mother; I’ve been through the medical wringer. Our troubles started barely a month apart. Before the summer of 2016, we got together every Wednesday without fail for dinner and a movie at my place; since then, we’re lucky if we manage a text a week, and a quick bout of coffee once a month. Lately, it’s been more like once a season. Our ongoing troubles keep exhausting us both. We crawl home after our respective days, and have to schedule “fun” as if it’s just one more thing we’ve got to do.

Through the last three years of shite almost continuously hitting the fan, there’s one thing that she and I have roundly agreed on: finding gratitude can be a laughable proposition.

Or at least, we did agree on that…

…until I began to keep a gratitude journal.

I know, I know. It sounds stupid. And it is…but not in the way I thought it would be.

I was raised kinda sarcastic, and I’ve gotten cynical since. My life over the last three years has only made me more so. Friendships have withered. Religion has always been a source of contention, not solace, in my life–and after some seriously awkward and dangerous conversations with the faithful, religion has only made things worse. Cancer has proven to me that my family, though wonderfully loyal, simply can’t be (and shouldn’t be!) in the fight the same way I have to be. Even the holy grail of my life, rootedness, has proven no defense against the illness within, and has even become a barrier to accessing the support I want. In short, I’ve felt more alone while surrounded with a husband and kid and friends and family than I ever thought possible. This is no one’s fault, not even mine; it’s the fact of being born human. At times every one of us has to face life uniquely alone and hurting.

In a particularly dark mental place one evening, I sat in bed hiding (literally hiding!) from my loving husband and awesome kid as they played games downstairs. It had been a difficult medical day for me, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I couldn’t stand the idea of being around more people, even loved ones. I certainly couldn’t face more intimacy; I was already physcially raw (nothing exhausts your body faster than being poked and prodded with needles and equipment) and emotionally raw, too (nothing exhausts your emotional reserves quicker than end-of-life discussions, even hypothetical ones). All I wanted was to be left alone to recover. I couldn’t bear another human being needing anything from me that day…not even a hug.

I’d already used up every coping mechanism I have. I had nothing left to give anyone that day, not even myself. I was so desperate for help that I realized I was willing to try parking my cynicism and attempting something sunny and life-affirming in a journal.

Blech.

I found a partially-used journal, opened it, and dragged myself through a short list of things to be thankful for. My daughter. My husband. My sister. My mom. My dad. And for the fact that dinner had been easy and quick to make that evening–no slogging through a big prep or lots of dishes afterwards.

I closed the journal, my body still hunched over with the stress of my day, and discovered that the hard knot of misery in my belly had loosened a little bit.

I was so desperate to continue converting some of that stone weight in my gut to a little bit of sliding sand that I resolved to keep doing the gratitude journal. And I did, even on epically awful days. I even began to add the awful stuff to the daily gratitude list as if they were things to be grateful for–like a cynical little flourish, a face-slap to the universe with a black gauntlet. At no point was I happy or feeling actually grateful. In the past I’d believed that gratitude was a joyous feeling, something light, something that caused well-being and increased it; yet at first the only thing I found in my gratitude journal was a twisted form of happiness that could be interpreted as “thank God worse things didn’t happen to me today.”

It wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t even happiness by deliberate omission. It was hanging on by my nails and teeth. And some days even that much seemed impossible.

Over time, I discovered something pretty grim: gratitude was saving my life, but gratitude really isn’t a light feeling at all. It’s that cold and broken hallelujah that Leonard Cohen talked about. Gratitude really can be interpreted as a one-word synonym for the phrase, “At least my life isn’t any worse.” Gratitude is a gut-deep acceptance of the fact that, no matter how much my life sucks, there are so many ways my life could suck even worse. And I’d better enjoy my time of relative peace and ease and comfort now…because there will most assuredly come a time when those things will be gone.

Things like my daughter. My husband. My sister. My mom. My dad. Over the last three years they’ve all watched how close I’ve come to being lost. At any moment, the same could be true of any of them.

Even that stupid easy dinner I was happy about…there have been so many nights that I’ve stumbled through making and serving a dinner based on nothing more than blind habit, or the promise of a single glass of contraband wine. There’s been no love in my cooking, no flair, no joy in so long that I don’t remember how to enjoy cooking anymore. All I can think of is the foods I can no longer eat, the foods that my husband and daughter still eat, and whether or not I’m letting them encourage a cancer or a heart attack that is waiting for them like a stalker in the shadows. But when I remember to be grateful for that easy dinner…I then remember that, in MS, it’s entirely possible that I might someday lose enough control of my mouth and lips such that my food would have to be pureed and fed to me through a straw. Or that I might lose so much control of my swallowing that I might end up with aspiration pneumonia. Or that I might lose so much of all of it that a feeding tube would get involved, and my life might as well be over.

I’ve learned that gratitude is absolutely no protection against my life sucking hard. After all, I had cancer. I’ve still got Hashimoto’s and MS. But I’ve also learned that gratitude is about learning to accept (with even the tiniest amount of grace) that, as much as has been taken from me, I still have a world of riches available. I still have feeling in my mouth and lips and throat. I still have a world of foods I can eat.

I still have my daughter, my husband, my sister, my mom, my dad. And despite the awkward gaps of time between us, I still have a friend.

Gratitude isn’t a happy addition into my life. But it is a call to let go of the sense of woundedness and grief I feel over the things I’ve lost. It would be a damaging form of ego, a self-violence, to continue to ruminate on what I can no longer be or have. I have no doubt that allowing ingratitude would shorten my life by causing me stress and fouling my relationships with everyone around me. So in that sense, that list of things that gratitude supposedly accomplishes–physical health, mental ease, and improved relationships and quality of life–is absolutely true; but the reality is, it’s true only in the inverse. Gratitude doesn’t directly accomplish those things. Instead gratitude keeps me from destroying the health and ease I still have by mourning a time when I had more. Gratitude is the solution for ingratitude…which is the enemy of all things living.

The right effort here is recognizing when I’m being ungrateful. When I waste my time and squander my mental health by ruminating on the things that have been taken from me, it is up to me to realize that I’m harming myself from within. Gratitude reminds me to switch my mental train onto a different, more helpful, more skillful, track.

Gratitude comes from the Latin gratus, meaning “pleasing” or “thankful.” And I’m learning to be thankful for everyone and everything I still have in my life…even, God help me, gratitude.