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The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Toxic Gratitude
• B J Fischer
On the fourth Thursday of November in the United States, we celebrate a day of Thanksgiving.  When we do this, we are pulling a thread in the fabric of our national consciousness, one that stretches back to our creation myth on the shores of Massachusetts.

'Most people return small favors, acknowledge medium ones and repay greater ones with ingratitude' Benjamin Franklin

The other days we pull on other threads--acquisition, achievement, ambition--and those threads are dyed from a different palette, one that more truly colors and defines us.

And I think that’s a good thing.  While I like Thanksgiving for the meal and the football, I’m not sure being grateful is good for us.  Once a year is fine, an aperitif on our annual menu, but we cannot nourish our hopes and dreams on being grateful.  I’m not sure what was ever created or built or solved or cured on a foundation of gratitude.

I’m clearly out of the mainstream.  Google the word gratitude, and you will find a dizzying amount of “research” that shows that people who are grateful are: happier, healthier, richer, taller, slimmer, with more productivity, less depression, harder erections, more fuel efficient cars and better dental hygiene (by 11%!).

To lead enlightened and interesting lives--and perhaps even to survive in our age--we need to be able to change.  True change is rare.  When it does happen, it is the result not of gratitude but of discontent.

We have all heard the stories of slaves who left the South on foot though the Underground Railroad.  I know a man whose family left communist Hungary and walked, literally, to freedom.  Moses led the Jews across the desert.

I doubt if those people were grateful for slavery, communism, or the Pharaoh.

Nor were the Pilgrims grateful to the Church of England for making it possible for them to eat with Natives in a god-forsaken wilderness.

Yet what each of them did was courageous and important.  I believe the world’s ungrateful characters--the malevolent and malcontented among us--can do great things.  Beyond that, I believe that people who invest too much energy on gratitude accomplish less, and, in the end, run the risk of making themselves happier but less fulfilled.

To see just how alien gratitude is to our psyche, think about the Thanksgiving ritual where a family goes around the table so each person can name one thing they are thankful for.  Picture what happens next:  the holiday season’s longest and most awkward period of stammering and floor staring.

Once people begin to speak, they engage in an exercise of “creative gratitude,” lowering the bar on the elements of their life until they find something they can claim to be thankful for.  

An underpaid woman with a domineering boss is grateful “just to be working.”  A man with a distant father and sullen teenage children will be grateful for “family.”  Someone is bound to say they are thankful for their “health.”

Imagine if tryptophan, when combined with sweet potatoes, was found to be the new truth serum.  We might hear things like this:

“I am thankful just to have a job, though it is slowly sucking out my soul and I spend my breaks crying in the bathroom.”

“I am thankful for family, except for Louise, Brandon, and Uncle Lloyd when he gets drunk.”

“I am grateful for my health, but not grateful enough to give up Kools and super-sizin’.”

There’s a natural tendency to look at something like gratitude and think of it as only having an upside, like drinking 8 cups of water everyday.  But everything has a downside.  You can drink too much water, and you can be too grateful.

Left to our own devices, we’re already apathetic and afraid of change.  Mix in a worldview where you discipline your mind to be grateful for ALL things, even the sub-par, and you create a paralyzing and unwarranted sense of well-being.

We wouldn’t be 21st Century Americans if we didn’t demand to know why we have to choose at all.  Why can’t someone be can’t be grateful for things and still change them?  

In theory you could:  a man could have a bad job, be thankful for income, and still send out applications for a new job.  A person in a fleabag apartment can be grateful for a place to live while looking for a new one.  

In practice, it doesn’t seem like it happens much.  You can find the answer to this paradox in the stories of people who have been laid off and forced to remake their lives on the fly.  (As in the fine documentary Lemonade).  Their stories, as similar as ocean waves, are about feeling satisfied in their old lives, being forced to change, and finding new levels of satisfaction on the other side of that change.

In fact, most of our lives are lived in the dangerous places in the gaping middle of the human experience...the secure job with no future, the girlfriend whose irritations you have accommodated--the elements of our life we are used to, like a moth-eaten old blanket we can’t bring ourselves to throw away.  These are places with downside and upside; where we find that the path of least resistance is never to walk toward the known and away from the unknown.  

And if you add a regimen of gratitude to the swamp, you have sealed your fate, as unrecoverable years roll through the hills.

My prescription is to create a two-day Holiday.  We keep Thanksgiving--with new ground rules--and then we follow it with a new celebration:  A National Day of Ingratitude, a true Black Friday.  On this day, we would stick a finger in the universe’s malevolent eye by identifying the putrefying elements of our life and calling them for what they are:  things for which we are not grateful.  

To our current holiday, I would add one new ground rule.  People should express their thanks only for one of two things:  what others have done for them or for things they got when they did not deserve them.  

Statements containing the word “but” and “just” would be banned.  Gone, too, would be misfortune cast as a “growth opportunity” as well as being thankful because someone, somewhere, has it worse.  They always will.  

On this day, we should limit ourselves to being thankful for the honest-to-god human kindness that gives us a transcendent feeling.  

If someone watches your kid on Thursday so you can go to class, you should be thankful.  If someone lent you a cell phone after you wrecked your car, you should be thankful.  Someone had to cook Thanksgiving dinner so everyone could be together:  thankful.

Similarly, if you screwed up at work and got a second chance, you should be grateful.  If you were forgiven for hurting another person, you should be grateful.  If someone believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself, gratitude is appropriate.

That day would be followed by the National Day of Ingratitude, which would be liberating in a different way.  You have been taught your whole life that you if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.  We learn to temper our negative statements with qualifiers, disclaimers, weasel words and insincere predicates followed by the word “but.”  

On the National Day of Ingratitude, we would have permission to give these constructs the day off.  We would use the immunity to open the windows on our soul and let the stale air out.

The person who gives up weekends coaching her daughter’s softball team to work while her boss is out on his boat:  ungrateful.  The person who is being foreclosed because the mortgage salesman they told them the adjustable mortgage rate wouldn’t go up:  ungrateful.  The person who paid $400 for car repairs that didn’t work?  Ungrateful.  Closing the library in your town to save money?  Ungrateful. Airline left you on the runway for two hours and then cancelled your flight?  That’s what I thought.

If your Mother only gives you backhanded compliments, you should not be thankful.  If your spouse is more interested in Halo than you, non-gratitude is in order.  If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, you may be thankful for your caregivers and life-saving treatments, but you should be ungrateful for the disease.

You tried to help your friend and she isn’t speaking to you?  She’s an ungrateful bitch.  You weren’t promoted but that brown-noser was?   That’s bullshit.  Your neighbor’s dog barks all night?  Fuck that.

Afterward everyone has spoken, the group should pass around glasses of chilled champagne to cleanse the palate (literally and figuratively) and celebrate the crystallizing beauty of the day.

What comes next?  There is a real danger to my proposed holiday.  We are already perilously close to being a nation of sickening whiners.  If the National Day of Ingratitude were to turn into, say, Ingratitude Month or The Year of Ingratitude, then I think we might be in trouble.

But treating it like Thanksgiving--as a respite—will clarify our feelings about the injustices in our lives.

It will also help us understand that while we must cope with many things in life, we do not have to cope with all things.  It can be in our power to make change--difficult, wrenching change, but change nonetheless.  

Here, the National Day of Ingratitude can make its most important contribution to our national life: by helping people start a walk through a flaming doorway.

Gratitude is about what you walk toward.  Ingratitude is about what you walk away from and sometimes that is the moment when we truly define our lives.  Jeff Sharlet concluded his book The Family (which covers religious fundamentalism at the highest level of government) by writing that the true answer to fundamentalism’s “neat beginning, middle, and most of all, an end that can be known,” is not a “different answer...but a question.”

“Maybe it's about that city upon a hill.  Maybe it’s how we get there and what we must walk away from.  Such a question isn’t to be found in revelation, but in exodus, the act of stepping into the unknown.”

He draws a distinction between salvation and deliverance.  

“Salvation ends in heaven.  Deliverance begins in the desert.  Salvation is the last word in the story.  Deliverance is the first.”

Here we reach what I believe is the critical question that defines, on a knife’s edge, every vital question in our lives.  Do we believe that we will be saved, or that we will deliver ourselves to a better life? Here, as Sharlet suggests, secular and non-secular should be able to unite.  To my point, if gratitude saves us, can ingratitude deliver us?

Sharlet: “It’s a question, always another question, always leaving Egypt behind.”

© BJ Fischer July 1 2013
bj@bjfischer.org

BJ Fischer is a writer who has published on subjects including the use of baseball by conservatives and the significance of the moon landing to someone who watched it as a five year old, as well as the Four People You Meet On Earth and Enlighten-Mat: Expanding the Laundry Tribe.  Most recently, he wrote Love Your Life, Accept Your Team for Midmajority.com.  His work has appeared in The (Toledo) Blade, the Bygone Bureau, Punchnel's, Thought Catalog, Impose Magazine and the Minneapolis Review of Baseball. He is also an award-winning creator of television and public relations commercials and campaigns. He lives in Saline, Michigan, outside Ann Arbor. 

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