It is conventional, as December moves into January, to pause and reflect on the past twelve months as we set goals for the year to come. Some have advocated shifting from making lists of seldom-kept resolutions for the future to writing retrospective catalogues, expressing gratitude for the year just passed. While appealing in principle, this suggestion may feel inapt given the year from which we’re emerging — a year that, for reasons I won’t rehearse here, will live in infamy in the American vernacular (“That’s so 2020!”). Surely, one could be forgiven for wanting to move on from this year without a grateful glance in the rearview mirror!
And yet, gratitude has its appeal. Gratefulness remains a key part of Christian spirituality. It’s woven throughout the Psalms; Paul exhorts us to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18, NRSV); and the Greek word from which we get the term “eucharist” could be translated as “thanksgiving.”
Moreover, this is one point on which secular authorities agree with Scripture. We have been encouraged — including by such reputable sources as an NIH study and an article in Psychology Today — to cultivate gratitude precisely in the present time of suffering, for our own good. Look for the “silver lining” and write it down in a “gratitude journal,” we are told; the result will be improved mental health, increased emotional resilience, and even (perhaps) a better medical outcome if we do contract Covid-19.
In short: Gratitude is like a free, biblically-based superfood. We’d be foolish not to eat up — especially at the close of a year as harrowing as 2020.
For some of us, though, the call to be grateful may sound about as appealing as the invitation to eat certain superfoods. (I’m looking at you, liver!) And I want to suggest that this gag reflex is worth pondering.
I should pause here to underscore that I am by no means against gratitude, even if it does not come naturally to me. As someone who experiences chronic anxiety and depression, I have long struggled with the scriptural emphasis on gratitude (and joy — but that’s another article, or rather dissertation). About a decade ago, I set out to deal with my confusion about gratefulness as any good scholar would: through an extended literary analysis of the role of gratitude as a criterion for the proper use of adiaphora in works by John Milton.
It turns out that literary analysis is not the most effective means of spiritual reformation (who’d have thought?). But my research did lead me to a greater appreciation of the “benefits” of gratitude touted above. Moved by the overwhelming evidence — literary analysis reinforced scientific recommendations, and both coincided with biblical guidance! — I tried a few things: I memorized George Herbert’s delightful poem “Gratefulnesse” so I would have something to pray when struggling to give thanks. I began to make a point of working expressions of gratitude into my speech, even when lament-rambling to my therapist. I have been keeping a gratitude-and-prayer journal (supposedly this alleviates depression?) more or less continually since writing on gratitude in Milton.
Since taking on these practices, I have grown not only in my capacity for gratitude but also in the intensity of my allergic reaction to the people whom I will affectionately call “the happy-clappy gratitude police.”
Perhaps to some extent these folks are a figment of my imagination, but I think they're out there today. You probably know who I mean: These are the people who rush to stifle your complaining with an abrupt “at least.” They also come out of the woodwork whenever one tries to talk about lament Psalms, which (as they are quick to remind us) usually end in praise and thanksgiving. (Note: Often there is such a shift at some point in Psalms of lament, and this is indeed instructive. But there isn't always such a shift — and that, too, is instructive. See, for example, Psalm 88.)
I realize that the happy-clappy gratitude police oversimplify both Scripture and our lived experience. Still, I often find myself warping my emotional life to avoid eliciting these folks’ gratitude corrections.
For example, I might say, “Having no human contact for months during the spring lockdown led to severe depression, but of course I realize it must be very difficult to be locked up with your children; I am grateful for the alone-time I get!”
Such qualifying of my lament can be part of an effort to shape myself toward more genuine gratefulness — a practice that, again, I affirm and engage in. However, these qualifications are also partly (sometimes primarily) the “tax” I believe I have to pay to the happy-clappy police if I'm going to express a negative emotion or bemoan some situation. If I emphasize my gratitude enough, the logic goes, I may be able to get away with honesty around the edges of it. Maybe I can even avert an “at least” through which my interlocutor would (perhaps unreflectively) trivialize my pain.
The most obvious problem with this plan, of course, is that my expressions of forced gratitude themselves trivialize my pain. Another problem is that I often only half-believe the statements with which I pay the gratitude tax. I include them anyway, though, as a means of social-emotional self-preservation. It would be too painful if my interlocutor inserted an “at least” for me; if I offer one myself, I maintain some control over how my lament gets written off.
Passive aggressive? Yes. Grateful? Not really. In fact, it is the deep memory of this nauseating practice that makes calls for gratitude so hard for me to stomach.
Perfunctory gratitude may well have its place in moral formation on the way toward genuine gratefulness. I'm less sure, though, that it's a healthy thing — spiritually or otherwise — when gratitude becomes a coping mechanism in our efforts to carve out some small space for our honest pain.
As we wrap up this year of “unprecedented” and multifaceted challenges, how might we foster gratefulness in a way that isn't bound up with passive-aggressive avoidance of the happy-clappy gratitude police? I know I’d be much more open to writing an end-of-year gratitude list if I knew I could write one with genuine (rather than gut-churning) gratitude. For me, such a list will be self-deprecatory, slightly morbid, and laced with eschatological hope. It will include not only gratitude but also lament, registering complexity without requiring balance.
Here are the first few lines of my attempt:
- I am grateful that my 2020 (unlike my 2019) has not included a cross-country move, a breakup, or a death in the family.
- I am relieved that the family member I lost in 2019 did not have to see 2020 — and that she did not pass during the pandemic.
- I bemoan the fact that death visited so many households this year, even as our rituals for grieving were disrupted.
- I celebrate the development of safe and effective vaccines in record time.
- I give thanks that the spring lockdown freed me up to observe a gaggle of goslings outside my apartment.
- Praise God for chipmunks’ seed-stuffed cheeks and for raccoons’ paw prints — and for the welcome reality that neither chipmunks nor raccoons seem vulnerable to Covid-19.
- Solitude can be a great gift, for which I thank the Lord.
- Isolation is literally crazy-making, and I grieve those who have been driven to despair by loneliness this year.
- I lament the ongoing effects of systemic racism and my own unwilling complicity in it.
- I rejoice that I did not lose my job due to Covid-19.
- I testify that teaching in “dual modality” is more exhausting than teaching while dissertating (I experienced both in 2020!).
- I appreciate my students’ good humor and perseverance.
- The Lord is risen indeed. Death has been defeated. Thanks be to God.
I don’t know if such a list will satisfy the happy-clappy gratitude police … but if not, at least they can be grateful that I tried! What would an honest gratitude(-and-lament) list look like for you?
Photo by Mary from StockSnap.