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.

12 comments:

  1. I appreciated reading your thoughts on this. I don't know that I've ever struggled with trying to keep some particular balance in thankfulness or fear consequence. But in the last couple years I certainly have wrestled with making the choice to acknowledge that I feel sad or lonely and be ok with that, rather than trying to come up with that fake "I'm fine," even to myself. It doesn't have to be instantly ok. Whatever it is I may experience it for a season. Not to wallow, as you said, but not to force an okay-ness which really is just a cover or mask anyway. I have a hard time admitting I'm weak, primarily to myself. And for some reason anything other than happiness constitutes as weakness.

    Thanks for your willingness to share some of your struggles. I've been following your blog for a while now and decided today was the day to comment. :-)

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    1. Thank you for relating, and commenting! It encourages me to know that someone is out there. :)

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  2. Gratitude in your heart shouldn't be forced (it probably can't be--and I say "in your heart" to distinguish this from showing some politeness in social situations, which is sometimes necessary even when you don't feel it), and being honest about feeling sorrow or vexation shouldn't automatically be taken as abject ingratitude. I reckon the kind of thankfulness we are called upon to have is the kind that flows from other improvements we make in ourselves and receive by God's grace, not the kind that we choose to our supreme discomfort in the hardest times. It's like the difference between loading yourself up with caffeine to stay awake and letting yourself have some rest in the hope of feeling refreshed in the morning. It's OK to say, "I don't feel overflowing with gratitude for how things are right now. That's just where I am right now."

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  3. It seems like there might be two kinds of "thankfulness" that needs to be distinguished here. One type that that feel like an obligation, something that is suppose to be felt, but is not truly present. With this type, we are just going through the motions of thankfulness, a burden-filled checklist of sorts, but we are not truly thankful. Then, the other, a true thankfulness that flows from our hearts and spirits from the Holy Spirit. The former being plagued with attached negative emotions and guilt, but the later being solid, centered, and healing. When we have the later, we can acknowledge unpleasantness and struggles, but it is in the appropriate context of true thankfulness. I have always found this type of thankfulness not to be a weight around my neck, but a reminder that God is faithful in the things that are going right in my life.

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    1. I do think there are times to fake it till you make it... but overall, I agree!

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  4. I really hear this. I'm glad you posted it ... you gave words to some thoughts I wasn't even consciously aware of.

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  5. OMG - your story about group scoldings in school... so me. I would feel the guilt while the guilty thought it wasn't them.

    I think for me, I'm very thankful in my heart, I'm just not good at saying it aloud. I'm this way about pretty much every emotion, so its not a surprise. There have been times though where I'm genuinely surprised that people don't realize how thankful I am.

    My two cents: don't read the book. Its just going to make you feel guilty. Give it away to someone else or something. Or as you read it, realize that you don't need to learn every lesson in it.

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