Gather writer Joelle has been exploring different Mussar Principles. These Jewish Principles are based on finding and cultivating the characteristics of the divine that are imbued within ourselves with the goal of eventually projecting them outward, to reach our fullest potential, as we were created to by the divine. For each trait, there is a spectrum, and the goal is to find the middle path, between either extreme. Join her on her monthly journey.
There was something bothering me about gratitude, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The books and the media, to name a few, tell us that we can be happier if only we would be more grateful. It makes sense that if we can choose to dwell on the abundance in our lives rather than the lack thereof, that we will see the world as a brighter place.
Indeed, this month I focused on gratitude – noticing it when I experienced it and practicing expressing it to others.
And in fact, this month, I did have a very cute gratitude experience. The phone at my office rang at 4:30 PM on a Friday, and since I was the only one left in the office, even though it’s not most of my job, I answered the call. It was a data user in need of assistance, and I did my best to help him and be friendly despite longing for the impending weekend. This data user was apparently so impressed at having an interaction with a government employee that was both competent and pleasant, he insisted that he tell my boss what an excellent job I had done. While on the one hand, I didn’t feel like my assistance merited such enthusiastic praise, I also was very touched by his gesture. And it made me think about how easy it could really be to make the extra effort to express gratitude to the people in our lives, whether they be people we are in intimate relationships with or those we’ll talk on the phone with for 10 minutes and never hear from again.
On my part, for my month of gratitude, I did make efforts to express gratitude to some individuals who had a big impact on my life, but to whom I never expressed that before. I did find that it was difficult to do. And while I expected there to be a warm fuzzy feeling going along with that expression, what I found was that it was more mixed. It does feel good to tell someone how grateful you are to have had them in your life and to have them reciprocate that feeling. But it feels less great when what meant a lot to you didn’t mean so much to the person it came from, and that happened. And it feels a lot less great to not get any response, and that also happened. But I feel that, despite the potential awkwardness, it’s better to say it, because it might lead to a moment of great connection. And also because it’s impossible to know how something grateful you say today can touch someone, even if they don’t know it then or express it to you in the moment. Like my data user interaction.
So with all of those good take-aways, what could be bothersome about the idea of gratitude? As I sit here writing this, in a pretty good mood, it seems like a no-brainer, focusing on the positive and in turn feeling grateful makes logical sense. But in my own experience, the times when I’ve felt so awful, being implored to be grateful produced more harm than benefit. I have, after all, struggled with depression and anxiety to varying degrees throughout my life. And what I’ve found is that trying to ignore the negative just doesn’t work. And for someone to disregard your feelings by telling you to be grateful can feel like a slap in the face.
I remember in particular one time during a depressed episode when I went to Friday night shabbat services. I had always enjoyed participating in services, and I appreciated spending that time as an end to the week. But that particular week, as I sat by myself in services and read through the prayers we say, expressing such gratitude and joy, and I couldn’t help but feel completely left out, because it was not how I felt at all. And as I looked around and saw what felt like every couple embracing each other and staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, channeling in that moment the love and gratitude embodied in the prayers, I felt even more alone.
Having someone tell me to be grateful wasn’t going to fix my problem, nor was saying grateful words I didn’t feel. What I needed was someone to listen and be supportive, and it didn’t seem like there was anyone in my life that was going to be able to provide that for me, nor was it something I was going to find in that institution.
And so I conclude with a mixed message, that gratitude is worth pursuing to the extent that it can connect us with our feelings and with others, but overemphasizing the pursuit of gratitude can distance ourselves from others and isolate them.
So I think we can do better. I think we can do better in the Jewish community to create spaces where everyone feels welcomed and valued. I think we can do better to share with others how much we value them. And I think we can do better in acknowledging where people are at rather than telling them to look on the bright side because it is easier for us.
On that note, this coming month I will focus on compassion. I’ve found that in trying to be more patient and in exploring the limits of gratitude, the empathy that comes from being compassionate is key, so I am excited to see what I discover as I pursue it specifically this month. When have you had to summon compassion? When do you wish someone would have acted more compassionately toward you? Let me know below in the comments.
All comics drawn by Becky Schwartz.