Thursday, April 18, 2013
The Problem With Thankfulness
Although I have as many pet sins and personal issues as everyone else, thankfulness has never been among my struggles. I believe that God made me with a genuinely thankful heart. Noticing and thanking Him and others for life's blessings, big and small, has always come naturally to me. The line "I really appreciate it" is a running family joke, because I've been saying it since I was little. But somehow, somewhere in my childhood, I absorbed the message that if I wasn't sufficiently thankful for good things – if I still complained, or expressed any disappointment – good things would be taken away from me, and I would be declared undeserving of those blessings. However I learned that lesson, it both amplified and twisted my thankful nature in ways that impact me daily as an adult.
When the book One Thousand Gifts came out a while back, the Christian blogosphere exploded with a fresh determination to be mindfully thankful All The Time. At first I thought it was a nice idea – it never hurts to focus on God's provisions and what we do have instead of what we don’t. Many people continue to share lovely and refreshing thoughts about it all. But I noticed that for some, it was mutating into a collective condemnation of sharing or even thinking about things not grounded in positivity and thankfulness. Then I started to feel uneasy. This is why, although I bought One Thousand Gifts, I still haven't read it. The atmosphere around the book is already touchy. I'm not sure what the book itself would do to me. When I was a little Hermione Granger growing up in public school, I sat through countless group scoldings. My teachers would rebuke the entire class for the bad behavior of a few, and I, the kid who didn't need the lecture, would take it to heart and feel terrible. The Thankfulness Movement, as I think of it, has affected me exactly the same way. I was already there when it started. If I delved deeper into the philosophy, I would be driven to a kind of superstition, a constant cataloging of blessings lest I not be "thankful enough" (a crazy-making, non-quantifiable measure).
What upsets me most about this movement is the attitude that if you’re not actively thankful, you're whining. God doesn't like a whiner, and neither does anyone else. This viewpoint has conditioned me enough that I currently cannot even acknowledge negative things to myself without a positive counter. Even in my own head. I've realized that my mild depression this winter was (partly) me hitting my limit of thankful-ing myself out of the legitimate hurts and disappointments in my life. Being sad was bad enough, but I couldn't even let myself be sad. I reached a point where I literally wanted to clap my hands over my ears and scream at the Thankfulness Voice, Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Yes, God has blessed me and provided for me in SO many ways. But acknowledging that I am lonely, that I often feel stuck and frustrated and purposeless, that I had imagined a very different 33-year-old life, does not negate my gratefulness for His blessings. It's not an equation that I have to keep balanced or face mysterious consequences. I do not have to disclaim. I can say, "This sucks," and leave it there without fearing others' disapproval, or that God will take away my health, job, or family to teach me a lesson. It's unhealthy to wallow in the negative, but it's just as unhealthy to keep pushing reality away with forced, excessive thankfulness.
I can't tell you how to achieve a perfect balance here, because I'm still trying to find it myself. Unfortunately, it's not black or white, but another one of those gray, both-and things that require constant reevaluation.