When life feels unfair or cruel, is there really space for gratitude?
I have been asked this question so much lately...How the hell can you find gratitude when life feels so heavy? There's heaviness of loss, whether it be a loved one or the onslaught of natural disasters in the world devastating lives in one fell swoop. There's the heaviness of inequity and oppression: racism, genocide, missiles flying indiscriminately, our present political climate... It seems to all be playing out in big ways right now. I and many of my loved ones have had much personal loss this year, the world seems the most divisive it has ever been and there are too many to count instances of injustice throughout the world. Every day, it seems, I find out some new threat to the well being of the most vulnerable. So what do you do? How do you find anything to be grateful for when it feels like life is falling apart?
I was even asked this question last week in a radio interview on gratitude. "Really," Bill Radke, my thoughtful interviewer asked, "are you saying we could be grateful for injustice like oppression or murder...?" That is a very difficult question to be asked on the spot and I have thought about it much since then. Let me be clear. No tool, not gratitude, not compassion, nothing can justify evil. We cannot reason any of that to be RIGHT. And those tools also cannot make intellectual sense out of tragic loss. I lost a friend this week at a very young age to cancer, my cousin is dying of brain cancer, my own son suffers from a devastating disease. None of this makes SENSE or is fair and none of it is reasoned away by any tool we humans possess. Plain and simple. They all represent pain. And pain is real.
But what is also real is that we as humans must balance somehow eventually in our hearts the pain of the world and our own individual lives with a way to find hope and beauty. There is no timeline to any of that. We are allowed to grieve, cry, scream out and fight for as long as we need. But all of that can coexist with a faith that as deep as our pain or anger may be, it is only a sign of how deeply we love, care and walk in this world. All of it is a sign that we are truly alive.
And so when life is falling apart before us, sometimes the gratitude is just that we woke up for yet another day of what feels like searing pain.
That we had the courage to open our eyes and do it all over again.
Or the gratitude could be that the deeper this present pain sears our heart, the more light can seep through that opening one day.
You can see this takes faith. Faith in life and most of all, faith in ourselves. I cannot sugar coat this. The path is a difficult one but one that must be walked if we want to find joy again. And especially, if it is oppression or racism that is causing us pain, we must walk that path to be able to join the fight again. There is no way to manage the onslaught of the world today without tools to find our own light.
No, we cannot reason or justify evil or tragedy.
They both exist and there is no way to intellectualize them.
But we must create so much light around and within us that we transcend this darkness.
And one way to create that light is through gratitude. Every small step (no matter how minuscule you may think the step is) of gratefulness we can find in the midst of burning pain, the fact is we are creating a spark of light in the darkness. Until eventually we can find a way to climb out onto the path again.
We all need to buoy ourselves in times of pain. That is why the support of loved ones is so crucial. They hold us when we cannot hold ourselves. We can also add in gratitude to buoy ourselves. It does not erase pain but it allows us to breathe through it.
One of my favorite authors, Isabel Allende, explained this week how we all have "interminable winters" in our lives. One of hers was her own daughter's death. But she illustrated as well that we all also have an "invincible summer" waiting within us. This is the ultimate faith but one that has carried her through loss, political oppression and hardship.
I would argue that not only is there a role for gratitude when life seems the most unfair, it is most likely the absolute most important time to employ this sacred tool. It is a life preserver until we can find steady ground again. Until we find our own invincible summer deep inside.