It's Thanksgiving here in Canada. I'm too sick (with a physical ailment that hopefully will pass soon) to celebrate my usual way (LOTS of food), so I'm just left with all the uncomfortable Thanksgiving feelings.
Thanksgiving is one of my least favourite holidays. Aside from the other problems with it that are not the focus of this post or my lived experience, I find the messaging that often accompanies it very triggering: the idea that we should be telling people how to feel and what attitude to have about their experiences--sometimes in the name of "healing" and sometimes in the name of moral obligation (and sometimes we merge the two in questionable ways as if healing itself without regard to context is a moral obligation).
Gratitude can be very healthy. I'm often extremely grateful to people for their kindness and other good qualities. Even though I lead a very isolated existence these days, there are so many people I appreciate and I'm so grateful that they exist in the world. I also appreciate the wonders of nature and the magical healing power of baby bats and rescue dogs and cats. Further, I'm aware that I have many privileges I'm constantly trying to be mindful of.
But I also have a lot to grieve: to be hurt and upset about. And it can be particularly hard to *feel* grateful for the things that still remain in my life when I'm also conscious of all that I've lost and all the struggles/pain/fear I have to manage on a daily basis. Especially on a day when everyone else around me is beautifully and lovingly singing the praises in their own lives of having those very things that I've lost. Not just shallow material things but good human things that I've lost the ability to experience. (I watch as others celebrate family while I experience isolation, for example).
And as for my privilege, I absolutely do recognize that there are many advantages that I'm fortunate to have. I try to cultivate this awareness in every way that I can. Perhaps this awareness of the advantages I have should make me feel "grateful" or adopt an attitude consistent with gratitude. And sometimes it does. But in the moments of recognizing my privilege what I most often feel is sadness. I feel it's equally important morally if not more so to be able to sit with the complicated and uncomfortable feelings that awareness raises rather than focus solely on gratitude. In those moments, I'm not happy that I have what others lack. I'm sad that others lack it and there are all kinds of complicated feelings that go with that. Morally, I'm not sure why "gratitude" is the best response to that awareness, but that's a complex question, which could perhaps involve a nuanced framing of what gratitude means. The point is it's not straightforward especially when the condition I struggle with has existential and moral dimensions (having been faced with some of the worst and scariest things--being conscious of the bad things in the world whether they're happening to me or someone else makes me feel many things, but gratitude that it's someone else not me isn't top of the list. Mainly I often just feel sad and helpless and wish I could do something to change it).
I'm not trashing the idea of gratitude or its practice. I have no doubt that it can be very helpful and can be integrated into a highly moral way of being for many if not most people. There may also be ways to define gratitude that aren't about a feeling that may be less problematic for people like me. I'm just saying that I don't accept it as the absolute necessity for everyone at all times it often gets portrayed as. Human experience is complicated. Feelings are complicated. We react to our own experiences and our own perspective on the world. The "right" way to feel about it isn't something that can or should be dictated to us in a univocal way (unless that's something we are seeking).
Gratitude can be good, but there is nothing wrong with feeling the types of things that are often viewed as incompatible with or antithetical to gratitude either. There is nothing wrong with not feeling grateful, with feeling the exact opposite of gratitude, with saying, "F@#* gratitude.". Even if you objectively recognize that there are good things in the world and in your life that merit positive regard and praise, it doesn't mean you always or even often have to feel it. Some of the worst most selfish behaviours can be carried out by people who are "grateful for what they have" and some of the best can be carried out by people who are unable to feel positive about what they have but just know that they would never want to hurt others or take what they have away from them (as perhaps has been done to them).
I'm not saying that there aren't ways of feeling that may not be healthier than others, but I feel that it's contextual. There are times when feeling grateful makes sense and there may be times when feeling all our grief with no hint of gratitude may be just what some of us need. So I'm not saying people should be silent about gratitude or the ways in which cultivating it *may* help but we need to stop speaking as if it has to be a mandatory component of a healthy and moral human life at all times.
A lot of mental health conditions affect what we are able to feel. Trauma can also rob us of so many of the truly good and valuable things in life that being asked to be thankful for whatever still remains can feel horribly invalidating. We don't need the force of overly simplistic moral judgments and platitudes about what counts as a healthy life to be heaped on top of this.
Further, as far as morality goes, gratitude (arguably) means very little if you aren't also committing to help others. "This is mine and I'm grateful for it" isn't an obviously inherently morally superior sentiment on its own...
So my message on this day on which you may be hearing all sorts of declarations about what you *should* feel and what attitude you *should* have: feel free to feel your feelings whatever they may be. If it helps, you could use the opportunity to reflect on what those feelings are and what it is about them that could help you be the person (both from a health and morality standpoint) that you aspire to be. You could reflect on what role, *if any*, gratitude could have in that right now, and what form that could take. If the answer is that gratitude is the last thing you need at the moment, because your grief, frustration or anger needs its day for the time being, but perhaps you could circle back to gratitude later when you're ready, that's totally valid. If your feelings aren't hurting others, I hope no day celebrating one particular attitude/feeling/orientation on the world will ever make you feel guilt or shame about them.
At the same time, I do value gratitude when it arises from my own experiences in a genuinely healing way, in a manner consistent with my sense of my moral obligations. And what I have to be thankful for has increased over the past year in many ways (while decreasing in others). I totally agree that recognizing that (in my own way, on my own timeline) can be very helpful at the moment so I'm going to take the time to do so.
So let's celebrate gratitude as a feeling/stance/attitude--worthy of consideration, discussion, exploration and celebration--that can help many people depending on the context, timing and circumstances. But let's be cautious about the way we frame it. If you can't or don't wish to feel it right now, it doesn't mean you are necessarily being unhealthy or morally deficient. There's a whole lot more that would need to be known for those kinds of assessments. Your feelings are valid. No one can tell you how you should feel on any given day, at least without knowing a whole lot about you.
Let the idea of "Thanksgiving" or "gratitude practice" (or however it may be framed) be a gentle invitation--to accept or decline based on our current needs--rather than an explicit or implicit obligation.
As always, please note that I am a lawyer, not a mental health professional of any kind. I have no expertise in trauma or mental health. Also, please note that any opinions and views expressed in this blog are solely my own and are not intended to represent the views or opinions of my employer in any way. For more information about the purpose of this blog, please see here and for a bit more information about my personal perspective on this issue, please see "my story" here
I am very grateful to have received a "Clawbie" Award for this blog (which reflects the importance of this topic): https://www.clawbies.ca/2019-clawbies-canadian-law-blog-awards/
For some of my external writing on this topic, see: