I know this is controversial but I’m just going to say it: I'm not so sure about gratitude. As a child, every year, November rolled around and suddenly the teachers said this word “gratitude” - "Boys and girls, what are we thankful for?" We wrote down ten things on paper feathers and glued them to a paper turkey and our moms stuck it up on the fridge. Then it went away.
In my former life as a teacher, I set out to remedy that for my charges. I constantly was stressing gratitude to my students. I studied happiness and how to properly practice gratitude. I did “365 Grateful” projects and I assigned daily gratitude exercises. I truly believed that gratitude was the key to teaching these children happiness as a skill. It never occurred to me to tell them to listen to whispers of their hearts. It never occurred to me to tell them that the only way to build a life you can truly be grateful for is to love yourself enough to not be mistreated by people who supposedly love you.
I clearly remember nights lying in bed during those years, unable to sleep because I was riddled with anxiety. That sadness and worry was almost unbearable at night. And would I tell myself over and over again, “Stop. Be grateful. You have two beautiful children, a man, a job, a home. You should be grateful. Who are you to expect to be HAPPY as well? This is real life. No one is happy. No one has a husband who is kind and loving to them all the time. No one has a job they love that compensates them fairly. No one has a clean house. Why do you think you deserve more? Who do you think you are? Why do you think you deserve to be happy? Stop. Be grateful.” Every night. Over and over for years on end. So ironic for a person obsessed with happiness, right? I knew in my heart what I needed to do; I was just too scared to do it. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful.
At the time, I was underpaid and manipulated in the workplace. I was continually alternately disrespected then ignored at home. But in order to keep up appearances and outwardly show all that gratitude I had for that frozen, paralyzed life I was living, I had to push all that down. I funneled out so much gratitude and I got none back, and I thought that was my fault. I thought that I must not deserve it, and that I had to just power through and be grateful anyway. It was exhausting. Somehow I thought if I could just be grateful enough, things would change. I’m learning now that life goes in cycles. It’s funny how that happens. I’ve learned to be smarter than that now, because I know that as amazing as the practice of gratitude can be, it can’t break the cycle. Only I can do that.
I’m done talking myself into being grateful. I’m done funneling in and receiving nothing back. Instead I choose to stop and exercise gratitude for the small things that pop up each day that let me know I am on the right path to happiness. Gratitude is a give and take, it has to have a flow. I have gratitude for the times when Simon wraps his little arms around my neck at bedtime and says “Sing it again, Mama, I’m not done loving you yet.” For the times that Alex makes me laugh so hard that I see the glimmers of what our friendship will be like when he’s a man. For the times I get to hug my dad. For the times the music transcends you just for a few minutes and for that unspoken way you all recognize it. For the times I hear my two year old niece say “Auntie Heather”. For the times when a friend texts just to check on me. For those times when you just know that someone understands you and has touched your soul.
This is my first Thanksgiving without my kids, and I know that it’s a direct result of my decision to not force gratitude anymore. That’s a hard pill to swallow, honestly. But I sleep now. I don’t sit up at night and try to convince myself to love my life. I don’t have to, because I already do. The laughter, the pain, the challenges, the ache, the love, the REAL. It's so, so good.
So, friends, eat your turkey. Be with your people. Or be away from your people. I'll be both. It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be happy and it’s okay to be sad and happy at the same time. Listen to the whispers of your heart. Love yourself enough to exercise gratitude for the important things. To give it and and to receive it. To participate in that flow. A good friend reminded me last week, “Just remember that it comes and goes.” Indeed. For that, I am grateful.