It seems everyone is looking to cultivate gratitude these days. Some might even say it’s on trend. And though I’m not wanting to diminish it as a valuable emotion, I wonder if it’s become the go-to feeling – particularly since the pandemic – to fill the discomfort between how we feel about our own fortune, and the despair we feel at the misfortune of others. Does the gratitude we feel for the good that we have, help make the bad and distasteful in this world, a little more palatable?

It’s what I learned

My father used to say to me: “be grateful for what you’ve got girlie”,  to stop me in my tracks if he thought I was complaining too much.

It worked every time.

Not that I complained a lot or was allowed to.  Apparently my father thought it was important that as a child, I learn that if I ever felt hard done by, all I had to do was remember there was always someone worse off, with far less than me.

But how we gauge whether someone is worse off, depends on what the thing is that they have less of. If it’s a material thing like clothing, shelter and food for example – they will be worse off. They may be malnourished, sleeping rough in the park or a shop doorway in the middle of winter without the warmth of a coat or shoes for their blistered feet. If, however, someone is grateful for whatever it is they have, irrespective of what’s going on around them, it’s me surely who has less when the emphasis is on emotional richness over material things.

My father, never-the-less worked hard to drum his grateful philosophy into me, whether I went on about not having a pretty skirt, doing too many chores around the house or him not listening.  “Don’t forget you have a damn sight more than many madame.” And thanks to his regular reminders, I never did forget it, or how grateful to be, for just about everything. But I also grew up catholic, and amongst other things that it meant – learning to pray, with a large dose of gratitude – a given in all my daily prayers.

“Dear God, give me the grace to be thankful and grateful for what I have, and for the day you have given me. Thank you for this meal, which I am about to eat, the clothes that I wear and this house that I live in. Please take care of all my family, my friends and the people in this world who have less than me. I am gratefully yours. Thank you, Amen.”

I am not mocking God here, or the ritual and practice of prayer. When God is an essence in or outside of ourselves that inspires us to do better and keep going through the sludge of life, I am in on that. Prayer too, can soothe, calm, give hope and strengthen. It can help us to reflect on our actions and the needs of others in positive ways.  Point is, by early childhood gratefulness was part of my psyche; my way-of-being.  A learned and ingrained response whenever I felt a wave of woe-is-me.  Reality was, I (like many who grew up in my era), was being fed more than enough gratefulness to last a lifetime.  Before I was even wise enough to discern my own preferences and say: “wait a minute, I’m not so sure I like the taste of this be grateful for everything meal.”

Is it useful anymore?

So now, the question I ask myself is: is the gratitude I learned to live by as a child meaningful to me as an adult still, or is it doctrine and  introject I no longer need?  What is it that I am really grateful for that has nothing to do with my father, the catholic church, God, or is contingent upon things going well for me? It’s easy to be grateful when the sun shines, the sea is calm, and there is relative peace. But what have we to be grateful for in a pandemic lock-down, through floods, fire and war or when a loved one dies, and we lose our job and our house? Where is our gratitude when so much that is going on around us screams greed, destruction and loss?

Gratefulness is more than just looking for the silver lining behind the cloud covering the sun.  Or seeing the sun as better than the cloud. It’s being grateful that we have weather at all.

And while the way I was fed: you will be grateful, through doctrine and guilt as a child is now distasteful to me as an adult, I’m actually still grateful for some of the gratefulness I learned. The bad in life still stops me in my tracks. Events and people around me make me reflect and think about what I need to take heed of and how to respond from a stance of humility and care.

What I will keep a hold of

Regularly I see and hear how tough many are living their life, first hand – not through television.  The job I do as a Mental Health Nurse and the people I meet in the course of my work day give me constant opportunities to feel grateful. There is no need for my father’s reminders because I see how fragile life can be and how important it is to take care of my own mental health and the wellbeing of others. The people I care for and work with teach me that. Every day.

My job also tethers me to the reality of life outside my own cosy bubble and for that I am grateful. These are the experiences of gratitude that I won’t let go of, because they offer me the time to stop and ponder my small and grateful place in this world, alongside others.