Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Embracing Happiness, Part V: Gratitude



This is the fifth post in a 7-part series that I'm calling Embracing Happiness. It's meant to document some things that I've learned over the past year and a half that have completely changed my life and led me to where I am now, to being a happier and more complete person than I have ever been before. Each piece will speak to a major skill or lesson I've learned and how that's contributed, directly and indirectly, to greater beauty and joy in my life. If you missed them, here are part one, part two, part three and part four.

It took me a long time to understand what gratitude is. I know a few people who have got it in the bag; they never seem to forget themselves, ever. And then I know people who are where I was a few years ago, where they think they understand it, but their behaviour leads me to believe that gratitude is more an abstract idea than a lifestyle to them. I found so much more peace and happiness when I was able to actually start living with a sense of gratitude day to day.

I know what some of you are thinking: “Lia, you never stop complaining about the latest bill Harper’s passing, or the latest instance of rape culture. What do you mean you live with gratitude?” And it would be totally understandable. But for me, standing up for what’s right and making sure people know about bad things that are affecting people are part of gratitude. While it seems really backwards, I’ll get there, and maybe you’ll see what I mean.
But I wanted to start with a basic definition of what gratitude is. For me, gratitude is being glad for what you have. And have here is both literal and figurative, of course. You could say you have a lot of money, but then you also have the love and respect of your friends, for instance. And being glad for all of these things ties into gratitude.

Being glad for what you have is fine and grand, but it’s something that takes some thought. For starters, you’ve got to be aware of what you have, and that can be tricky. To fully understand all of the things you have is almost impossible, and I wager that the vast majority of the population doesn’t even understand half of what they have. Let me explain.

Gratitude is the big stuff, but also the little things, like not getting annoyed because you’re entitled to a cellphone signal and you don’t have one. Like not complaining that the waiter left the chicken in your pasta when you’re vegetarian. (Reality check: if you send that pasta back, the whole bowl will go in the garbage and the chicken is obviously already dead and cooked. You can pick the chicken out and save some perfectly good food from the landfill, or you can have them trash it and make a new one “without” meat, probably with the same spatula they use to flip their burgers. As you may have guessed, this is a battle I’ve ceased to pick.)

Gratitude is respect. It’s respect for the things that are valuable. For me, that’s living things (including humans, including myself) and the planet, which arguably fits into the first anyway. To me, that’s making sure I’m acknowledging more beauty than ugliness when I’m directly addressing a person or the broader ecosystem (yes, I talk to trees and animals), and saving ugliness for the institutionalized problems that we have engrained in our human-made systems. It’s receiving a homemade scarf from Carolyn and jumping up and down with excitement because she didn’t have to, but I’m so glad that she did. She gave of herself, and that’s beautiful, and I think of her love every time I wear it. What would ingratitude look like? Receiving the scarf, saying thank you, and then inspecting it and noticing, “Hmmm, looks like there’s a pull in it, near the bottom there. But that’s OK,” and then never wearing it. (This is exactly what some people I know have done with things I've given them. FYI, Carolyn's scarf may have had a pull, but I didn't check and don't plan on it. I'm too busy loving it.)

I think the most common gratitude I hear is health. “Well, at least I’ve still got my health. I’m grateful for that.” And to be sure, health is something to be grateful for, because it means lots more beauty you can experience in this world because you’ll probably live longer than if you weren’t healthy. I also hear people say sometimes that they’re really grateful for certain people in their lives. They’re so glad that they met Joshua, because he’s been so loving and supportive that it’s helped them get through their troubles. These are both pretty easy gratitudes to notice. It’s pretty easy to notice you’re healthy as soon as someone else isn’t. It’s very easy to notice that when you’re sad and Joshua walks in, 20 minutes later you don’t hurt so badly. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. How much further can we take it?

Part of true, deep gratitude is being glad for the things you have that you’re never really forced to think about, also known as privilege. (Check out this amazing graduation speech: Part 1 & Part 2.) You know something I’m glad for? Running water. I can turn on the tap anytime I’m thirsty and drink water. I can waste water by showering 3 times a day, every day, if I so choose (which, of course, I don’t), because it’s that easy for me to access safe, clean water. Part of being grateful for tap water is not belittling it by suggesting it’s inferior to bottled water, and making sure that I actually use tap water when I can to avoid sending the message I don’t appreciate it (and avoid destroying the environment while we’re at it).

I’m also grateful for what the colour of my skin has meant for my interactions with others. I’m glad that I've never had to walk into a job interview where the prospective employer unthinkingly assumes I’m lazy or stupid because people of my ethnicity are just more likely to be. I'm glad that I've dodged preconceived notions about my intelligence, educational background, or nationality based on my appearance. I'm glad that people don't assume I'm hypersexual, from the ghetto, really good at dancing, more likely to see racism in places it doesn't exist or anything else just because those stereotypes are associated with the colour of my skin. While we’re at it, I’m grateful for my accent (which is “not an accent” where I live), because it means that, unlike my Austrian friend Lukas (whose English vocabulary is probably better than mine), if I say a word that the person I’m talking to doesn’t know, they’re not going to attribute it to the fact that I’m not from around here and therefore probably just made a mistake, or slipped a German word in and tried to pass it off for English. (For the record, Lukas has stumped me on more than one occasion, with a legitimate English word that I had never even heard of, and which was not Germanic in origin.)

And this ties back to why I’m always ranting and railing about injustices. Being able to recognize the privileges we have means also being able to see that others don’t have them. And being glad for privileges is valuing them. If we value them, and we know others don’t have them, doesn’t it follow that it’s our responsibility to do what we can to make sure we’re not actively oppressing others? Isn't it our responsibility to encourage other privileged people to recognize their privilege so they're also less likely to oppress people?

I will probably never get an abortion. My likelihood of getting pregnant is as low as any fertile woman's can be, I wager, given that I don't date men and I'm probably not more likely to get raped than any other woman. But anyone on my Facebook feed knows full well that I am vocally pro-choice. It’s part of recognizing and being grateful for my privilege. I don’t have to worry a whole lot about getting pregnant at a time when I’m not in a position to raise a child. I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant because my partner raped me. Lots of women do. And it would be horrifically ungrateful of me to benefit from these privileges and then be like, “Well, sorry, ladies. Not my problem.”

And here I am again, with a framework to explain the way my brain organizes these ideas. Basically the idea is that the areas in orange are the negative feelings we tend to associate with our position in life, while the ideas in the neutral grey-brown colour are ones of basic contentedness. The one that I try to concern myself with is the blue box, where deep gratitude is. By identifying the way I’m feeling, I can look at this chart and figure out if I need to “up” my positive outlook or my humility to get back into the deep gratitude space.

I also wanted to mention that I am aware that there are feelings here that are left out. One that is fairly obvious, I think, is guilt. By this framework, guilt can come from the same place as deep gratitude, which is the feeling of “I didn’t earn this” but also the feeling that there are a lot of good things in your life. I think that comes down to a question of self-worth and empowerment, which could (if not super strong) suggest that since you didn’t earn the goodness, you don’t deserve it and you need to feel bad that you have it. The reason I don’t include it in the framework is that is presupposes that humans are unworthy to begin with and have to work to earn love, respect, etc., and that’s not something I subscribe to. (Check out my Illusion of Independence post for a more detailed outline of the system I’d rather support.) Much more productive, to me, is doing away with guilt, replacing it with gratitude, and acting in such a way that encourages the same kinds of good things to be accessible for everyone.

At the end of the day, everyone decides what they’re grateful for and what they’re not. But the truth is that my idea of gratitude now is not what it was a few years ago, and I feel I have a better understanding of gratitude now that it's everywhere in my life. Living with deeper gratitude has meant not wanting all the time, simply seeing situations that need to be dealt with, and for me, that comes with a lot of peace and happiness. Does it mean that my gratitude is unshakeable? Of course not. It's a process. But with experience and patience, it has become stronger.

And, really, when you have everything you need, it's hard not to be grateful.

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