Monday, September 17, 2012

Gratitude or not?

As Americans, the vast majority of us are part of a highly privileged population. Although some of us may feel we are lower or middle class, this is perceived in reference to supposed upper-class Americans. But by world standards, we are most certainly privileged. So why, then, is it so easy to focus on what we do not have? I continually remind myself how important it is to remain grateful. Gratitude is critical, and despite its seeming simplicity, it's also inevitably layered with impressions of culture, social norms, and personal perspectives. Though there are countless reasons to be thankful, it's also, unfortunately, easy to be clouded by insecurities or social pressures or a slew of other factors that make us forget to be grateful for what we do have. Among the most powerful of these factors is comparison. Consider a most innocent example- a kid gets an ice cream cone and is thrilled. Then another kid comes and sits next to him with twice as many scoops; suddenly kid #1 is disappointed with what he was just excited to have. This is a prime example of gratitude being shrouded by comparison.

I think of how prevalent this dynamic is in our society, and in my own life. Any time I find my mind wandering to the things I wish I'd accomplished, the resources I wish I had, or the way I wish I looked, it nearly always seems to be heavily influenced by what I've seen others possess or do. After all, how could I feel 'less than' unless I've seen examples of what I consider 'more than.' Though it's subconscious 99% of the time, it's still a tendency that needs repair, and I believe genuine gratitude is the most powerful opposing force to such discontent.

I've written before on this topic, about how one makes gratitude a personal lived truth, rather than a mere statement. I've talked about how it is a chosen perspective to be thankful, despite being aware that there may be something 'better' out there. What I wonder today though, is this concept of comparison and how it taints gratitude altogether. I assume nearly everyone has experienced this train of thought, whether deliberately or not- "I wish, I want, I need... etc." followed by "there are people much worse off, I should be grateful it's not THAT bad for me, at least I have a home, a car, a job, whatever..." We live in society surrounded by the possessions and behaviors of others, so it's natural to be aware of what you have in reference to others, indeed it's often what causes discontent in the first place. But does bringing yourself back to a state of gratitude based on the awareness that others have less constitue genuine gratitude? To determine this, I suppose we would need an operational definition of 'genuine gratitude,' and I believe this can only be done subjectively, if it can be done at all. For me, I don't know that I'm able to define it, and for that matter, the dictionary can't either. They liken it only to thankfulness or appreciation, but lack any further description of what it reflects, where it comes from, and where it is directed. 

For me, in the absence of a definition against which to qualify my gratitude, I know simply that it reflects thankfulness to something, namely, the God I find responsible for creating the earth and everything within it, myself included. Based on this, I don't find gratitude-by-comparison to be sufficient. I feel it's somehow inauthentic or incomplete, and I wonder if it's even valid. For as I've previously written, I think gratitude should exist regardless of what's around you, be it supposedly 'better' or 'worse.' 

I wonder how others would define or at least frame gratitude, how vital it's found to be or not be, and whether gratitude by way of recognizing 'I could be worse off' constitutes real gratitude at all....