Gathering together with family and friends for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes is a distinctly American way of expressing and experiencing gratitude. Situation comedies, Broadway farces, novels, blog posts and text messages to friends capture and communicate all of the complex emotions that come to the fore when we are forced into intense interaction with family. The more difficult and less comic undercurrent, however, is the anguish we experience when we are asked to feel gratitude when we are grappling with hardship and pain. We may have been displaced from homes by natural disasters or war or unemployment. We may have suffered hurt and disappointment in love relationships. We may experience ourselves as having dreams deferred or shattered. Can gratitude be commanded or mustered in such situations? Is it even good for us to try to feel grateful when we are feeling anything but? Wrestling to find ways to understand and cultivate gratitude while we are coping with hardship and disappointment is neither uniquely American nor uniquely Jewish—it is part of every cultural and spiritual tradition. Jewish texts and traditions offer some insights and stories that help us to understand the challenges and offer some possibilities that are useful at this particular time in our history and in our year.
The Hebrew expression for the orientation toward gratitude, hakarat ha’tov, means seeing the gift of good in all that happens in our lives. Not exactly seeking the silver lining in a way that denies pain but rather seeing that what has happened may lead to possibilities that are positive. It is a way of giving the benefit of the doubt to life; something good may yet come of the person or situation that is now so difficult. The Jewish prayer upon awakening, Modeh ani, means, “thankful am I to God for allowing me to awaken to another day.” When it works best such wisdom and such prayers gently push us toward hope and a mindful awareness of the beauty and good in our lives. Yet when misunderstood or misused such guidance can lead us to bitterness, guilt and feeling totally misunderstood and accused. It may feel absurd to seek good that may come from the death or suffering of a loved one or the destruction of a home or homeland. We may feel unable to muster thanks if we wake depressed or in extreme physical pain. Stories from our tradition and from a modern understanding of resilience can help us to have a more nuanced and more useful view of gratitude.
Those who can truly acknowledge their own pain and hardship and feel empathy from others ultimately do better than those who deny their experience and who are prevented from expressing pain. It is not necessary to say, “Oh wow, I am so grateful, this is another opportunity for growth!” when something bad happens to us nor must we say we are fine. In fact, doing so can actually impede our coping since if we don’t acknowledge the depth of the problem we won’t be able to find solutions. Those who are able organize a response that embodies hope for the future and makes use of the good still present in the world seem to have a better chance for spiritual survival and the ultimate rediscovery of joy. Those who can admit their pain and believe there are resources and people who might wish to help are the ones most able to experience gratitude. Gratitude that is meaningful is not instantaneous or automatic, it is hard won. Those who either are too numb to their own pain or that of others or who cannot mobilize any hope or ability to assert themselves more likely find themselves mired in grief and despair. How we respond to one another can make a difference.
The Biblical Hannah desperately wanted a child and so grieved was she over her situation that she did not eat and wept when she accompanied her husband to worship and sacrifice at the Holy Temple. Her husband said to her, “Hannah, why are you not eating and why are you crying? Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” (I Samuel: 8) There it is—the call to be grateful for what she had, the other’s taking personally and expressing outrage at Hannah’s wanting more. Yet Hannah does not act chastened and she does not turn to making peace with her situation; she does not tell herself she ought to feel more grateful for having a loving husband. Hannah has belief in the legitimacy of her wish to be a mother and she brings her prayer for motherhood to the Temple and even corrects the Priest who finds fault with her prayer. Although this may not be the only way to deal with infertility in our current time the message is clear.
Demands for gratitude can be experienced as a lack of validation and empathy for real hurts. Self assertion and standing up for what one needs reflects a sense of faith in the future and the possibility of goodness in others and in the Divine; it is not a sign of being an ingrate. Hannah is ultimately able to experience gratitude not just because her child is born but because she has been able to be effective in her own world and able to secure the help and understanding of others. Perhaps Hannah could feel grateful for her own capacity to speak up and assert herself and for the presence in the world of people who might come to understand her and show kindness. Hannah did not need to feel grateful for infertility nor did she need to feel that gratitude for her husband’s love (despite his lack of empathic communication) ought to cause her to deny her other pain and need. What was helpful was her capacity to believe that good was still possible even in a tough situation.
Noticing the good around us and the potential for what might be better is not an either/or proposition. If we are lucky we can feel gratitude for the love and gentle care of those around us when we are suffering without having to deny the pain we may still be feeling. We can be grateful for the good in our lives and hurt and outraged and hopefully moved to positive action about the less happy parts of our situation or our world . An example. The old person in a nursing home who complains about the food is not helped by being told that he ought to be grateful because other old people are so poor that they must resort to eating cat food. He is also not really helped by being told he would be happier if he looked on the bright side. When his son who lives far away visits infrequently, it does not help the man to be told that other people have no visitors and he should be grateful to have a son who comes when he is in town. On the other hand, having human beings around him acknowledge the legitimacy of his feelings can make a difference. Helping him to find pleasure in the social interactions that are available to him, even doing some community organizing to help him to join with other residents to find effective ways to make changes to the menu can restore hope. Helping this unhappy lonely man find ways to communicate and behave with his son and other relatives that might increase visits or make them happier experiences might actually lead to gratitude. Helping him to negotiate with his son about moving to a facility closer to where his son lives might lead to gratitude. Encouraging gratitude ought not to be a way to silence legitimate needs or self-efficacy. Encouraging hope and helping people to rediscover kindness and empathy and even partial solutions are ways to kindle gratitude.
Being grateful for the good in our lives and experiencing the truest sense of thanksgiving is made possible when we work together to restore reasons for gratitude to one another.