The Accessibility of Gratitude

Have you felt gratitude today? Did you smile as your pet greeted you when you got home? Enjoy the music in your car? Share a kind moment with your partner? For many of us, daily practices of gratitude are central to our health and well-being. Gratitude is powerful medicine, and many try to share it. The axioms about this abound:

“Be thankful for what you have, and you’ll end up having more!” 

“It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy!” 

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough!” 

These statements are undoubtedly true, and for many they can be powerful reminders. They are healthy; but they’re also not the whole story. 

For those of us with much in our lives, gratitude is cheap. For someone who has a stable job, a supportive family, a loving partner, healthy food, joyful community – gratitude is the baseline. We’re not perfect at it, but gratitude is there. It’s easy to find, and like all practices, it gets easier the more you do it. Many of us were raised with some gratitude practices, and that makes it far easier to keep up with. Of course there are those who have much and are not thankful; but that’s another subject. The point is that gratitude is more accessible for people who have more to be thankful for and who have learned how to be grateful. 

The first time we asked the residents of The Friend’s House what they were grateful for, one barked out a spiteful laugh and said “Fuckin’ nothing.” He stood up and walked away from the question in disgust. It is easy to feel annoyance at this; everyone has something to be grateful for, doesn’t he understand that he is lucky to be alive? Lucky to have a house? He’s being ungrateful, and that’s a synonym for bad, right? 

But what if you had never really seen gratitude, let alone practiced it? What if the only emotion that had ever served you in the violent, drug-riddled world that you came from was anger? What if your life was very, very different than it is now?

On this man’s plate was left half of a tiny burrito, still in it’s sad plastic wrapper from the freezer. He has no car and no job. His only “friends” are from a former life he is working hard to grow beyond, and men he just met in this house. His relationships with his family were strained and broken many times by his addiction. Unless we cook something else, he eats frozen food three meals a day; his only parent was an addict who didn’t cook. He sleeps in an empty bed every night. He served years in prison, and has a court date coming up that will determine whether he serves years to come.

It is easy to sit back in our blessed lives and preach that gratitude will make you happy. When we have safe homes, hot baths, and know where our next meal is coming from; it is easy to say that people should be thankful for what they have. In theory. But in practice, do we dare to honestly look this abused addict; daily targeted by the police, mocked by potential employers for his ragged clothes, unable to pay his rent in a sober house, and tell him that he should be grateful? In integrity, can we honestly say “If I were in your shoes, I’d be grateful for the roof over my head and that I had a 50 cent burrito at all?” Would we, though? If your entire world was made of repeat jail sentences, brutal violence, lifelong addictions, judgmental strangers, and frozen food from the dollar store, can you really know that you would find the impossible, inconceivable strength to find gratitude in that?

Without sober housing, this young man would immediately relapse into a life of drugs and crime. He knows this. He knows it to the point where any time we talk about rent, his thin, defensive veneer of anger immediately gives way to raw tears. He is working furiously to avoid it. He recently worked hard for several weeks painting and drywalling, only to have the man who hired him relapse and not pay any of the work crew. He was counting on that money to square up his rent, and addiction took it from him. So now, on top of his court fines and paying out-of-pocket for mandated therapy; he owes $1,545 for the last three months rent. 

He finally got a job making minimum wage. The last few weeks, when we go around at house meetings and share what we’re grateful for, he straightens his back, looks up and says “I’m really glad not to be in jail.” He keeps the house clean and he keeps himself clean; he’s working hard and doing an amazing job. But the question of whether he can make this life work as a clean, healthy, legal community member or whether he will slip back into a world of addiction and easy money is very present in all of our minds. 

Of course we should all seek gratitude, and when we begin to find it the practice of gratitude will change the entire tone of our lives. But there is real danger in assuming that gratitude is as easy for some as it is for others; it assuredly is not. 

May we all move closer to health and wellness.

May we learn to witness each other more clearly and with deeper love. 

May we all find ever-greater gratitude for all that we have in this stunning, swirling process of life. 

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