You do not have to be grateful for every experience you’ve ever had in your life. I almost feel the need to write that again. I think there’s enormous confusion around this topic, at least in the “spiritual community”, and I think it’s important to shine some light on it. You can, in retrospect, appreciate how certain tragedies may have made you a more compassionate and insightful person. You might acknowledge that you would not be the you that you are, had you not endured certain piercing heartbreaks. Maybe you’ve even taken this knowledge and used it to help people going through the same kind of loss, and perhaps you can feel grateful that something of value has risen out of the ashes of your grief. That’s all beautiful, but you do not have to look back on your life, on everything that may or may not have happened to you, and feel grateful for it all.
You may think I’m splitting hairs, or that this is just semantics, but I assure you that’s not it. I watched a close family member lose his six year old son to brain cancer, and I can tell you, no one in my family is grateful for having gone through that, least of all his parents. Having said that, his mother helps other families facing loss like that. So is that gorgeous of her? Yes. Can she appreciate that she would not be able to comfort people going through something that horrendous in the same way had she not gone through it herself? Of course. But would she gladly give back that experience and be less insightful in that area? Yes. One hundred percent, yes.
I get really fired up when I see these quotes, or hear people spouting platitudes about everything being wonderful and positive. It’s so alienating for people who are in pain, who are grieving or suffering, to also feel they’re supposed to somehow trust that it’s “happening for a reason”, or to have faith that “someday it will all make sense to them.” Some things will never make sense. Some things fall so far outside of anything we could call sense, it’s asinine to try to put them in the same sentence.
I recognize we all want to make order out of chaos, create stability in a vulnerable world. I know we’d love to feel there’s some quid pro quo, and that it’s all cause and effect. “If I’m a good person, then nothing bad will happen to me, or to those I love,” but it doesn’t work that way. Knifing things happen to incredibly kind people sometimes. Perhaps you believe there’s a larger picture, and that it all works out in the end. Maybe you’re right, and maybe you’re wrong. We could shout our opinions from the mountaintops all day long, but ultimately we all have to figure out what makes sense to us. We all have to grapple with these questions and piece together answers we can sleep with at night. When we tell a grieving person their tragedy has befallen them for a reason, even if we believe that and we mean well, we are showing an enormous lack of understanding and compassion, and there’s nothing spiritual about that.
There’s the “normal” amount of suffering, and then there’s the kind that brings you to your knees with your mouth full of why, the pain so great it takes up all the space in your lungs, the breaking of your heart something you can feel in real-time. Then there’s the way you respond to what you’ve been given, and that’s pretty much all you can control. How do I work with my history, my pain, my fears, my tendencies, my gifts, my strengths, my joy? How do I lean into all of it, and do my life in a way that feels good and right to me? How do I learn and grow and use what I know to have a positive impact on the world around me? What within me still needs my kind attention? Where do I have room to heal more, to open more? If you force yourself to feel grateful for everything, or you feel disappointed in yourself because you can’t, you’re simply getting in your own way.
Examine your “shoulds”, as in, “I should be able to handle this.” Says who? How old is that should? Is it even yours, or is it something that was instilled in you, that you’ve internalized? You feel how you feel. You are who you are. Obviously, we want to focus our minds on all the things we do have, like our health, and the people in our lives who love us, and whom we love beyond measure. We want to feel grateful for the sound of laughter spilling from our children, our partners, our best friends, and total strangers. We want to feel grateful for the sun on our faces, or the breeze across our skin, for kindnesses bestowed upon us by those we know so well, and those we don’t know at all. Gratitude is a beautiful state that makes us feel all the abundance around us and within us, but you can’t force it, and it isn’t even a sane response in many cases. Facing reality as it is, is my religion. Give me the truth, whatever it is. Let me know myself and the people in my life well, and deeply. That way I can love them for real. When I’m angry, let me examine what’s happening within me. When I’m joyful, let me spread that far and wide. Let me start and end and fill my days with all the reasons I have to say yes, and thank you. But when I’m suffering, grant me a spiritual practice that makes space for that, too. That way I can breathe.
Wishing that for you, and sending you love,
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