What Part of ‘Grateful’ Don’t You Understand?

by Daniel Brenton on December 27, 2008

in Gratitude

    Gratitude has something to offer, even to those who may not want to hear it.

Start: While I was putting together a recent “Gratitude Watch,” I ran across a well-crafted piece that spoke about the value of gratitude, but I didn’t include it because it missed what I think is a very important point.

The piece was “It’s a Wonderful Life” by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D on the Psychology Today blog page.

I quote:

I have friends who have lost just about everything in the Madoff scandal, friends that are facing job loss at the worst possible times, and friends with big time health challenges. The rest of us, those of us without (at least right now, life-threatening illnesses or economic ruin) should be filled with the most powerful feelings of gratitude for the luck of the draw at this moment in time. [Emphasis mine.]

I feel Dr. Schwartz missed an opportunity here.

Let’s think about this.

It is certainly understandable that individuals who have lost jobs, big chunks of their retirements, or any meaningful equity in their homes while their mortgage payments were jacked up astronomically would not be feeling particularly grateful at this moment. Or, for that matter, would a recipient of any of a number of other significant life events that can and do derail our lives, current crisis notwithstanding.

It is implicit in her statement that there are individuals, because of their situation, have a right to feel thoroughly ungrateful.

Sorry, doctor, but what part of “grateful” don’t you understand?

Now, I realize this may not have been intentional, and was probably just an off-the-cuff remark on her part, something written quickly to meet a deadline and then rush off to meet some other task. But in having said this, she has, in essence, reinforced an unquestioned societal expectation — that there are some things in our lives in which gratitude has no place.

I beg to differ. Gratitude has a place, even for those going through the hardships she described, or those infinitely worse.

Gratitude Helps Us Find the Best Perspective

A personal example: I was in a freeway auto accident many years ago that was no fault of my own (the state troopers handling the situation not only did not charge me, but reassured me I was not at fault) and I wound up having my van in the shop for three months. This was due to that interesting little cost adjuster feedback loop we can get stuck in with accidents — it’s impossible to tell how much damage there is until some repair work is done, that exposes that more repair work needs to be done, and so on and so on. Naturally, we had some coverage for a rental during that period, but we burned through it in a couple of weeks, and then had to make do. On top of this, there were repair costs I got stuck with that the insurance company was able to dodge because I couldn’t prove the damage occurred because of the accident.


The bottom line was that I could easily have been killed in that accident.

No, I was not particularly grateful for any of that, but the bottom line was that I could easily have been killed in that accident, my wife could have become an instant widow, might have had custody of her children taken from her, and in retrospect, probably would have befallen a number of other very unpleasant things at time marched on.

It was water-spotted little glass, and it was too damned small, but it was half full.

Gratitude is Not a Sign of Weakness

In some people’s minds, finding the aspects of an unpleasant situation in which we can be grateful equates with capitulation, or even surrender. This perception is that expressing gratitude in the face of an adverse condition is essentially giving license to the situation.


Responding to a difficult situation with negative emotions ultimately robs us of emotional resources we might need to draw on.

For example, one thinks of the Dilbert cliché of corporate management lording our employment over us with the expectation that we present some kind of face of thankfulness. (Even if there are genuinely no such expectations, frequently the mass perception in a corporate culture can create a false impression of this that is indistinguishable from reality.)

I would be lying to you if I said I couldn’t relate. Probably everyone in the work world has experienced it. Not to mention any number of other circumstances where authority is abused or power wielded in an irresponsible manner.

Unjust? Sure. (To take a cosmic perspective, maybe it is just, but that’s not the point I’m going after here.) Unfortunately, responding to a difficult situation with negative emotions — even a situation that warrants a pitched battle, legal or otherwise — ultimately robs us of emotional resources we might need to draw on.

An Image of a Grateful Future

Going back to our dear doctor’s statement, it’s not easy to discipline the mind to think gratitude all the time, but those who are in the toughest of situations are the ones who need it the most.


It occurred to me that the natives of 2108 might look in embarrassment at the sheer lack of gratitude the average American of 2008 expressed in the normal course of living.

I am not suggesting that there should be some kind of “gratitude police” mentality as part of our culture (the whole “political correctness” thing annoys the dickens out of me, and I know I’m not alone on that one), but what gratitude has to offer is something that can be invited in all instances.

It is in our best interest for all of us to remember the power of gratitude.

I was reflecting on how our culture has been evolving over time, and an image struck me that I wanted to share.

It occurred to me that if the average Joe or Josephine somehow miraculously was transported to the year 2108, that maybe — just maybe — the natives of the future might look upon the way Joe or Josephine lived, thought, and expressed him/herself in embarrassment because of the sheer lack of gratitude the average American of 2008 expressed in the normal course of living.

We can only hope this is what the future will bring — a society that is so permeated with gratitude, hope, and love that we of 2008 would be thought of as utter barbarians in comparison.

So, fellow barbarians … here’s to the future.

Copyright © 2008, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.

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