Out of the (Gratitude) Closet

Gratitude closet

I love my colleague Tina for many things, but especially because she drinks her coffee from a mug that announces, “I Don’t Do Perky.” False Positive is the title of an article I wrote for psychotherapists about the downside of positive thinking. And a humorous essay of mine begins, “This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me.”

So it may come as a surprise that I’ve recently begun keeping a gratitude journal.

Call me a hypocrite. I prefer to think of it as similar to the time I went from being a person who doesn’t much like dogs to owning one. I could really relate to canine-indifferent friends who couldn’t express an enthusiasm they did not feel for such lovable behaviors as tail-wagging and that (not so, to them) endearing doggy lean-in.

Likewise, I understand why someone who is suffering can feel even worse when asked to embrace positive emotions. It’s not that I’m a depressive ingrate by nature (at least not most of the time). But I’m wary of efforts to sanitize thought and speech. Too often, expressions of negativity are met with rebuke instead of empathy, and I’ve seen the damage this causes, personally and professionally.  I thus try to champion all those nasty feelings we feel pressure to squelch: anger, sorrow, bitterness, envy, vengeance. Superimposed gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins.

And yet, stubborn resistance is equally problematic.

So during a hard time this summer, I relinquished my protestations and started a gratitude journal, figuring that it couldn’t hurt.

It’s nothing fancy, just an old 5×7” Reporter’s Notebook covered with my daughter’s grade-school scribbles . Every night I write the date and “I am grateful for/that . . . “ Then I list 3-5 things. I try not to repeat myself (though our latest addiction, the TV series Nashville, has made it into several days, and there’s a sprinkling of entries that say “RAIN! RAIN! RAIN!”).

Here are some of the things I’ve jotted down recently:

(And although this isn’t a current event, I’m grateful to my daughters, whose persistent dog lobbying brought Button into our lives for 15 years.)


Two weeks into my gratitude journal, one of the things I wrote was “Feeling way less depressed.” Though the ritual of giving thanks surely helped, there were other things at play as well: I’d resumed weekly therapy after cutting back; the post-cancer scans that always make me nervous were clear; I finally followed through on my intention to volunteer; my weight finally started heading in the right direction; things started to go better for the Democrats; the summer drought of movies yielded to a fresh crop of Oscar worthies; our actual drought yielded (a little) to rain and the promise of more to come.

There is always more to come.  Assuming El Nino delivers on its promise, I look forward to jotting down my gratitude for SUN! SUN! SUN!

That’s how it goes, the chiaroscuro of darkness and light that makes up life’s full spectrum.

I’m grateful for it all.


Ever felt (or promoted) the prohibition on negative feelings? How’d it go? What are you grateful for?

G is for Gratitude


This gratitude craze bugs the shit out of me.

Yeah, yeah, I’ve read the research, too. I know that counting your blessings lowers your blood pressure and elevates your mood. Plus, unless you’re so insufferable that you’ve driven everyone away, a grateful attitude usually means having lots of loved ones who can actually stand to be around you.

The fact that it works infuriates me even more.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

 “’Dear Amy,’” writes Needs a Hug. “. . . I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I have a very good life. Still, . . . I get a little blue. . . Many people seem to feel . . . I will perk up if reminded how much better off I am than others. . . . I feel as if I have no right to feel tired, sad or overtaxed. If I hear one more, ‘Well, at least’ statement, I could fall apart.’”

Tell it like it is, Needs a Hug. Maybe your happy-talk friends just need a knuckle sandwich.

Speaking of sandwiches, remember Café Gratitude, that venerable landmark in the corporatization of self-esteem?  In its heyday you could indulge in “I Am Cheerful” veggie burgers or “I am Fabulous” lasagna, washed down with an “I Am Eternally Blessed” milkshake.

Forgive me, but I am nauseated, and it’s not because of an overabundance of goddess-kissed food.

Call me old-fashioned, but I am suspicious of any feeling that has a menu item named after it. Perhaps I’m being unfair, though. After all, Café Gratitude is merely the logical outcome as the Positive Food and Positive Psychology movements join forces. Merging “You Are What You Eat” with “You Are What You Think” perfectly embodies the trend toward self-esteem as commodity.

This instills in me not so much a feeling of gratitude as the desire to launch a competitive franchise. Maybe I’ll call it Café Curmudgeon. How delicious to imagine the chains battling it out on rival street corners, like Starbucks and Peet’s!

Now don’t get me wrong. Through nature and nurture, I am a cheerful and optimistic person. But just as Heaven is flat and boring compared to the juicy degradations of Hell, life without cynicism and darkness is depressing. What would Peanuts be without Lucy, serene in her crabbiness? Besides, maybe she wouldn’t be so cranky if her sanctimonious little brother, Linus, would just stop radiating goodness all the time. Can’t he give it a rest?

Where would the world be without the temperamentally morose? The evolutionary advantages of depression are clear: after all the more outgoing people have killed one another off, those emerging sluggishly from the cave to take a piss can repopulate the planet.

But once outside the cave, do we really want to live in a lobotomized world? The Stepford Wives depicts a society of happy, grateful people. There’s just a slight catch–harmony is achieved by killing off real women and replacing them with zombies. This seems a bit much, even for the suburbs.

Gratitude, positive thinking, relentless cheerfulness—maybe it’s all part of the same Stepford conspiracy to sanitize authentic emotion. As my friend Avvy says about our horror of dark feelings, “Wash out all aggression. Rinse and repeat.” But woe to those who are not so fastidious about their laundry.

At a Brownie meeting when my daughter was five, I took exception to the part of the oath that demands “A Girl Scout is always cheerful.”  Heedless of my daughter’s social standing, I told the other moms that, in my experience as a therapist, many of my clients’ problems stemmed from exhortations to be cheerful no matter what. There was dead silence for a few beats before one of the mothers said, “Maybe Girl Scouts isn’t for you.”

My therapy clients, too, have been banished by families who do not welcome their lack of good cheer in response to difficult childhoods. They hear, “You’re so sensitive. It’s water under the bridge. Can’t you just let it go?” Well, no, actually. My clients fear that letting go lets derelict people off the hook. It’s not that they want to feel angry and unhappy, but premature gratitude is like a thin coat of whitewash that seals in the toxins.

My clients have read the research, too, though. We know the hazards of lingering in the muck. Shouldn’t we at least try to put on a happy face? Fake it ‘til we make it? If only it were that easy. Now my clients not only feel miserable, but also guilty for making themselves sick, trapped by their inability to choose gratitude.

Yet there’s hope for ingrates and curmudgeons alike, if the annals of restaurateuring are any indication. Café Gratitude’s vast empire has shrunk dramatically ever since disgruntled employees sued them for questionable labor practices. In a letter announcing the closure of most of their restaurants, the owners explained:

 A series of aggressive lawsuits has brought us to this unfortunate choice. . . . We were happy to . . .  sustain ourselves on the transformation and personal growth of our people, while providing local organic vegan food to our community in an atmosphere of unconditional love. That commitment is under attack and we are not able to weather this storm.


Now that’s delicious!

On Turning Sixty

60th Birthday Hike, EBMUD watershed, Rocky Ridge“How are you feeling about your birthday?”

It’s a common question, especially when the birthday ushers in a new decade.

My birthday, which I recently celebrated, is the one where people say, “Sixty is the new 40!” That’s because it is impolite to say, “Sixty! That’s verging on old!”

Not old enough to get the senior discount at the movie theater, enroll in Medicare, or collect Social Security. But within spitting distance.

How do I feel about turning 60?

I feel great.

Since being diagnosed two and a half years ago with a rare and aggressive form of uterine cancer, there is nothing I have wanted more than to grow old.

I was lucky—my cancer was detected early, and I am completely fine. Still, a serious diagnosis permanently pierces the veil that obscures mortality. And even though I fervently believe that anyone who says “the gift of cancer” ought to be shot, the glimpse of death that burned through all my neuroses and made me feel keenly how much I want to live is the gift of cancer.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that when her husband had a cardiac event in 1987, she refused to believe him when he said, “Now I know how I’ll die.” He dropped dead of a massive heart attack 16 years later. Sixteen years is a decent interval, but still, the original diagnosis presaged his end.

That’s how I feel, too. Unlike with Didion’s husband, whose condition was dubbed “the widow-maker,” there is no reason to believe that my cancer will make my husband a widower, my daughters motherless, my future grandchildren unknown to me. Still, it shadows me–not as a morbid preoccupation, but as a plausible outcome. I hear about people who beat cancer 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. Then it comes back with a vengeance.

A few months back, my husband and I were chatting about life after retirement.

“I don’t care about living till I’m really old,” Jonathan said. “As long as I make it to 80.”

I began to cry. “I don’t think I’m going to make it there with you,” I said softly as he put his arms around me.

I hope I do, just as I hope to get the senior discount at the movies, know my grandchildren, celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.

But whatever happens, I have made it to 60! We celebrated exactly as I wished–a thirteen-mile hike through rolling green hills with Jonathan, followed by an intimate dinner with dear friends. We toasted with gin and tonics, bemoaned then solved the problems of the world, and gorged on an incredible gourmet spread topped off by chocolate Kahlua cake. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.

Lorrie's 60th

Here’s wishing for many happy returns.