I had an uneasy relationship with gratitude growing up. A sense of superstition, perhaps, that had come to me from my Polish ancestry. Expressing gratitude was like gloating. It was tempting Fate. Hiding your happiness was… safer, in some way. Joy was too fleeting, too easily taken away. These beliefs were passed on to me somewhere in my genes.
Being grateful for something also seemed to imply a sense of ownership. Gloating about what was yours. It was better to be humble. To talk about what was imperfect, what was missing. Just maybe to complain a little, so that you didn’t draw attention to yourself. So that Fate wouldn’t notice you. So that it wouldn’t all be taken away.
My perception of what gratitude is and what it means has wholly shifted. But I still see that confusion out in the world: when people express joy about the moments of beauty in their lives, when they dig deep to count their blessings, when they honour the richness of existence. Suspicions are raised; accusations are levelled.
But gratitude isn’t gloating. It’s capturing a moment that is always fleeting, that always holds in it the potential for grief. My gratitude comes from seeing how precarious it all is. I’ve come to believe that my job is to witness each moment in my life, to find the beauty. Gratitude is being present, feeling the joy of it right now, as it is. Despite imperfections; sometimes despite pain.
I’ve started to see it as an honouring. An honouring of every element of the universe that we breathe into our beings, that allows us to exist. There’s fierceness to it, and tenderness.
I’ve realized that if I shift my language, if I say “I’m grateful to” instead of “I’m grateful for” – the sun, the rain, the earth beneath my feet – I feel like I’m more accurately expressing my thanks: for the agency of all living things; for their separate existence, which sustains me, but which doesn’t belong to me. I like to remind myself of this.
Someone said to me a year or two ago, with some sullenness: “But sometimes I just don’t feel grateful”. I was surprised at how strongly I reacted to that. I realized then, that for me, gratitude was no longer optional. It was a necessary acknowledgement of what kept me alive.
A ritual that allows me to live in harmony in the world; a powerful ceremony; what some would call a prayer.