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:
- Hector, who makes the best lattes
- A fresh start every day
- The Moth
- Never having to live through war
- Tattooed Lutheran Pastors (as featured on Fresh Air)
- A nice rejection letter inviting me to submit again
- Eating too many chocolate chips is the biggest problem I’ve had today
(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?