Gratitude is Not a Panacea. Please Stop Telling Us to Count Our Blessings.

Kathryn Dillon

Image by Magic Creative from Pixabay

Gratitude can help us through tough times, no doubt. But the constant advice to practice it just feels trite.

I’m fortunate to have dear friends who remind me, through their very existence, how far gratitude can take us during dark times. I try to surround myself with people who appreciate what they have because they help me do it too.

But gratitude only goes so far when we’re faced with sustained uncertainty, stress, and trauma.

I’m grateful for many things — my husband, my cats, my house, my job, my health, my family, my friends (even if I can’t see them with any normalcy or regularity these days). What I’m about to write doesn’t negate any of that.

Recognizing that gratitude isn’t always enough to heal us doesn’t mean gratitude doesn’t exist. It doesn’t suddenly disappear just because it can’t cure all our woes. It still means something — it just isn’t the be-all, end-all.

It’s not the happy dancing unicorn that will make everything better.

It just can’t be, right now.

I’m the queen of reveling in small pleasures, like the first cup of coffee of the day, the grey spots on my cat Buster’s fluffy white belly, the smile on my husband’s face when he walks into a room. I believe strongly that simple things simply make life worth living.

But there’s a lot of sheer crap going on in the world right now. We can’t ignore the things we’re NOT grateful for. We need to acknowledge them. We deserve to acknowledge them.

I’m not grateful that my mom is alone more than I would like her to be, because it’s difficult to get together when we’re trying to keep each other safe.

I’m not grateful that my sister is back in the classroom teaching the handful of kids whose parents feel comfortable sending them back to school. She teaches live in the morning and then spends the afternoon alone in her classroom working with the rest of the kids through virtual learning.

She doesn’t get a break. She dehydrates herself so she doesn't have to use the bathroom. She doesn’t eat. She doesn’t feel safe. But hey – a few parents got their babysitter back.

I'm not grateful that minimum wage workers like grocery store employees and delivery drivers, who have served us non-stop throughout the pandemic at great risk to their personal health, have not been prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine in most states. I'm not grateful that we are flat-out telling people who attend to our needs every day that they matter less because they don't have as much money.

I’m not grateful that parents of Black children, especially boys, must have conversations with them, conversations that shouldn’t need to occur at any age, let alone when they’re still prepubescent, explaining how to handle themselves when approached by the police, how to handle themselves so they do not get SHOT.

I’m not grateful that we still have to explain why “all lives matter” is inappropriate and why demanding justice for dead Black people when their murderers have not yet been arrested is different from demanding it for a White child whose killer was behind bars within 24 hours.

I’m not grateful that Ohio’s Republican legislature pressured our Republican governor (who gained praise early in the pandemic by implementing sensible protocols but ultimately caved to political bullying) to go soft on mask mandates and shutdowns, which ultimately resulted in more COVID-19 cases and more deaths than otherwise would have occurred.

I’m not grateful that our country seems to have gone completely insane when 70 million people, many of whom otherwise seem rational, looked at the atrocity that is our former president and said “yep, that’s my guy, let’s give him another term”.

I’m not grateful that said former president whipped his followers into a furor, resulting in the bloody, murderous riot that stormed the Capitol on January 6th.

I’m not grateful that families are being torn apart by the lies and brainwashing of the QAnon movement, which is also infiltrating our government in the form of traitors like Marjorie Taylor Green.

I’m not grateful that so many people have decided the pandemic is over just because the numbers are going down, even though there are new, deadlier, more contagious strains popping up around the world.

I’m not grateful that letting our guard down increases the possibility of another surge in cases, and that those of us who are not yet eligible for vaccines and have been playing it safe for almost a year will have to stay inside even longer because we aren’t selfish and won’t try to pretend things are back to normal.

I’m not grateful when I worry that my husband will be so sick of seeing my face and nothing BUT my face by the end of this that he might just run away, screaming.

As illustrated in my last example, gratitude can even contribute, directly or indirectly, to our anxiety. If I’ve focused on my husband as a core of my existence, my rock, the lodestone of my sanity during this ridiculously stressful experience, then it’s all too easy to zero in on what it would be like to lose him.

Gratitude can be complicated. I can appreciate the sun, especially during long Northeast Ohio winters, but curse it when it gets in my eyes while I’m driving.

I recognize my privilege. I know I have it far better than many people. This isn’t about that. This is about mental health and survival and trying to get through the day without succumbing to despair, without becoming one with the couch for all eternity.

Gratitude has its place and should never be cast aside or forgotten. But it can come across as pious (especially when it comes in the form of self-righteous articles demanding it from us).

Forcing it can even elicit ridiculous levels of guilt, like recently when I realized the cauliflower languishing in my fridge that was supposed to be roasted today for a cookout side dish had molded.

As I tossed it in the trash bin, I berated myself because, you know, starving children. My husband has trained me to regard wasting food as a sin, but sometimes when you’re trying to make your vegetables stretch as long as possible, and you didn’t realize white mold was growing on your white cauliflower that otherwise looked fine, you’re probably not going to hell for throwing it in the garbage.

Enough with the reminders to practice gratitude. The platitudes are just making many of us feel worse, and we’ve heard it all before.

I’m not entirely sure what would make me feel better these days, aside from trying to keep up with my wellness checklist (more water, a little less booze, lots more vegetables, significantly less cheese, some sort of exercise every day, practice creativity, regularly do a task I was dreading).

I don’t know what would make me feel less like I’m continually slogging through some sort of quicksand ennui existence.

I’m open to suggestions.

Just please don’t tell me to count my blessings.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH

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