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This article by Dr. Srikumar Rao originally appeared on The Rao Institute.
Are you sick and tired of being told that you should be ‘grateful’ for the wonderful things in your life?
I frequently, very frequently, advise persons to feel grateful for their lot in life. I ask them to feel grateful for what they are and what they do and the great good fortune that has been bestowed on them.
For those who are ready to listen, I go further and ask them to just be grateful and not grateful ‘for’ anything.
Whatever you are grateful ‘for’ can be stripped from you.
Say you are grateful because you have good health. You can be struck by a truck and become a quadriplegic tomorrow.
So the trick is to be grateful. And not grateful ‘for’ something.
Recently I got a diatribe from one of my students.
“Professor Rao, I am sick and tired of being told to be grateful and trying to feel grateful. I don’t care how much better off I am than some destitute peasant in some wretched country. I am hurting and its bad and I the last thing in the world I am is ‘grateful’ and I will punch the next person who tells me to be grateful in the eye.”
This student certainly did have more than his share of travails. Just this year he lost his five-year-old daughter in a freak accident, was pink-slipped in the pandemic and is facing eviction. Also, his marriage is shaky and the death of his child has made the tension worse.
Is that diatribe justified under the circumstances?
Of course, anyone is free to believe anything and to rant at any time.
But this outburst betrays a subtle misunderstanding, and this can hurt the person in many ways.
It is possible that you, also, are making the same error.
What is this mistake?
First, when you rail against anyone suggesting you feel grateful, you are ensconced in a world view where you are making the effort to be grateful ‘for’ them. Or you feel that they are suggesting something so fatuous that it deserves contempt and condemnation.
Second, you don’t see any way in which the current circumstances of your life can possibly be beneficial to you.
Third, you may believe that if you somehow succeed in being ‘grateful’ that feeling may make you complacent and thereby prevent you from taking action that you need to take to improve your situation.
These are all good points so let’s examine them.
Why should you be grateful or why should you ‘try’ to be grateful?
Perhaps someone, even someone close like a partner or parent, suggested it as a method of reducing stress or banishing fear.
This is a good beginning but only a beginning. If you remain at this level, then you are still trying to be grateful ‘for’ someone or to fit into the image you have that you are the type of person who feels ‘grateful’. Or, worse, trying to project the image that you are the type of person who ‘feels’ grateful.
This is like a paper covering over heavy tools. It will tear and sooner rather than later.
And when you excoriate fate for what has befallen you, you are revealing that you have rigid expectations of how the Universe ‘should’ unfold and are unwilling or unable to recognize this.
And if you feel that the gentle wellbeing that envelopes you when you are immersed in a feeling of gratitude leads you to complacence and lack of action, then you are asserting that action from a space of ‘want’ and ‘must have’ is what is needed to get you out of current circumstances.
You are the person who is hurting. You are the person who is bemoaning the loss you find so terrible and unbearable.
So when you are trying to anchor yourself in that space of gratitude, you are doing it for YOU. Not because someone you like suggested it, not because it is a nice thing for others to think of you, not because you want this to be your public perception.
You are doing it because it is a wonderful way to lessen the pain YOU are feeling. And all the other reasons can go hang.
There are tragedies in life, every life. Events like the untimely death of a child rock our foundations and lay us low. It is precisely when we are engulfed by such tsunamis that we need an anchor to prevent us from being carried away and drowned in those waves.
If this is your particular misfortune, can you try to celebrate the time you had with your child even as you mourn the passing?
It is not easy. It is not fast. But it can be done if you set your mind to it. Your awareness is like a flashlight. It will illuminate whatever you shine it on. So shine it on what brings a smile, even if it is a wistful smile and tinged with sorrow.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winning poet, expressed the sentiment beautifully:
“If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.”
And finally, when you are anchored in gratitude, you are also capable of action with quiet determination. And action from that space is more effective than you ever imagined. That space of inner well-being is an attractive force and brings into your orbit others who feel similarly, and they will collaborate with you in the action that you set out to take.
So, don’t denounce gratitude. Try to cultivate it in your life and make it an ever-present entity. When your inner landscape seems jejune and incapable of supporting it, just take a break and come back to it again.
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