“Have an attitude of gratitude.” It’s hard to think of a saying I hate more.
The instruction to find things to be grateful for feels half-hearted. We often use it as a way to minimize our suffering. When we’re going through something terrible, no matter how dark it feels inside, we often say – “but I should be grateful for what I have.” In my experience, the command to “be grateful” is a tool we use to distract us from the complex, often painful true emotions we’re processing.
So I made this list today, on Thanksgiving in 2020. It’s a list of things I’m grateful for, and a recognition that those things don’t fix any of my sadness. The two – gratitude and grief – can exist at the same time.
1. I am grateful for my first marriage. It was full of pain, and hurt, and so much longing in the dark hours of the night. It was also full of jokes and good beer and homemade pizza nights and hope. It’s been five years since the day I walked out, and the feeling that I did something wrong, that I failed, is still tucked into a corner of my heart. The rest of my heart is grateful that I listened to my body, which was leading me to wholeness and health, away from that marriage. I’m grateful that we had a big beautiful winter wedding in the church where I was baptized, that hundreds of our friends came to celebrate, that my grandparents were there. I’m grateful I got to wear an expensive white gown and a cathedral length veil and that our friend played the organ and that we used the lectionary texts for that weekend, Christmas I – in the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Somehow that text spoke to me then about beginnings and endings, and it still does. I’m grateful that my first marriage ended. I’m grateful that the pain of that ending has been the shit-pile of compost that has nurtured my life for five years since.
2. I am grateful to be carrying our second child, to feel him move frantically inside me, pushing pushing, already running and living his own life. I am grateful that this pregnancy has been the absolute opposite of what I expected. I’ve been disappointed most of this pregnancy – disappointed that my friends can’t feel the baby move inside of me because we’re all still separated; disappointed that I can’t travel to my hometown, take this baby to Kansas City, my birthplace, before he’s born; disappointed to not be having a daughter. When you’re pregnant you’re supposed to say – “boy or girl, I just want a healthy baby!” But that’s not what I want. I have always pictured myself having a daughter, and the day I found out we were having another boy, the disappointment that had been hovering around my shoulders the whole pregnancy settled right into the space behind my eyes, the space behind my heart. I feel less connected to this baby than I think I’m supposed to. But that’s real, and I know other mothers must feel that too.
I’m grateful that my body knows what to do – knows how to create a cave of growth and nutrients and warmth for this new life. I’m grateful for my body, even though this pregnancy I’ve felt less connected to the miracle of womanhood and more angry that my body is changing without my permission. I feel more like a machine just doing its job, giving everything it has to this new person who has already disappointed me. It’s hard to say those things, but they’re true, so I’m grateful to say them.
3. I am grateful to live in San Diego. I will never get used to the sight of the ocean in the distance as I drive up that one hill on my way to work. I am grateful that my son always asks “go ocean now?” and wants to “dip feet” in the water. I’m grateful that he cries when we leave the water, wants to be near it. This makes me grateful that I grew up as far from the ocean as possible, close to fields of prairie grass and muddy rivers and farmland. I’m grateful that I grew up with ice storms that would cut the electricity out for a week, force us to huddle together in the living room and light candles and walk through quiet, dark streets covered in snow. I grew up with summer thunderstorms heralded by a never-ending chorus of cicadas, that I would find the carcasses of cicadas in the backyard and collect them. I’m grateful I grew up with fireflies. I long for my child to grow up with those experiences, too. His childhood is so different from mine. This fills me with longing and grief, which live right alongside the gratitude for eternal sunshine and accessible beaches.
4. I am grateful for my addiction to Instagram, because it reveals to me my brokenness, my loneliness in real and tangible ways. As I scroll past endless content, my heart is trying to tell me that it needs something, needs soothing and comforting. It’s true that I often don’t give it the soothing comfort that it needs – usually I just spend an hour scrolling, looking for something that will fill me up. But even when I fall into the void of Instagram, a part of me knows that it is an opportunity to listen to my deeper self – the self that needs quiet, and space, and lit candles and art making and quality time with friends. Even if I don’t give my inner self what it needs, I’m at least grateful that it’s speaking up.
5. I am grateful for my work, for my role in the community of my church. I’m grateful for those moments when I wonder – what is the point of all of this? Does any of this – this writing sermons, this setting up chairs on Sundays, this effort to nurture healthy community, this to-do list that never ends – does any of it matter? Does the gospel matter? I’m grateful for those moments of doubt, because they are real.
6. I am grateful for the park near our house. I am grateful for it because it is located right off the 805, a super busy highway that’s constantly moving, constantly loud. Taking my child to our neighborhood park and feeling frustrated that it’s right off a busy highway has helped me wake up to some of the privilege I have lived with my whole life, and for that awakening, I’m grateful. I always lived far away from any busy roads, was always safe in our neighborhoods, didn’t have to hear the roar of traffic while I played for hours on the swing set. It wasn’t until we bought a house we could afford, close to a busy highway, that I realized that was an unrecognized privilege I’d lived with. I’m grateful that my son couldn’t care less that his swing set is right next to the highway; he just wants to swing and swing for hours.
7. I am grateful for my friends all over the world. And, I can hardly stand the sadness of realizing that I haven’t seen many of my closest friends in five, even ten years. I feel pangs of guilt and shame when I realized it’s been over a year since we talked. I’m grateful for those feelings of missing them, because it means that our connections are still real, still part of me. I’m endlessly sad that we have lived whole lives apart from each other, that we don’t know each other’s daily lives the way we used to. I wish we could share our lives the way we did in high school, in college, when we lived together.
8. I am grateful to be a parent. I’m grateful that it comes naturally to me in some ways, and that in others ways I totally suck at it. In the moments when my two-year-old wants me to play with him and I’d rather do anything else, I’m grateful for the simultaneous feelings of frustration and love. I’m grateful for the times (every day) when he throws things just because he knows he’s not supposed to; I’m grateful for the anger that rises up in me as I wonder – why can’t he act exactly like I want him to? Those are the moments when he is doing the necessary work of becoming his own person, and I have to do the work of being my own full self, and let him be his own full self. These moments are painful and I’m also grateful for them.
That’s the list for now. What are you really, truly grateful for? Does the gratitude cover up the grief? Or might they exist alongside each other?