How to be grateful but to no one
September 27, 2008 5:39 AM   Subscribe

Can one be grateful without any recipient ?

I was trying to calm down a friend who is angry with her life, the economy, her job and everything else. I advised her to show some gratitude for other positives in her life and she kept asking "to whom". (She is an atheist if it makes any difference).
posted by lahersedor to Human Relations (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Your friend may be correct that being "grateful" isn't the right term for someone who doesn't believe in an sort of intelligent force bestowing her health and loved ones etc. upon her. If you were dealt a good hand in a poker game, you'd be pleased and happy, and feel fortunate rather than grateful. It's just one of those phrases those of us who don't believe in God or Santa Claus use unthinkingly, like "count your blessings" or "thank heavens", but that really doesn't stand up to a critical analysis.

In any case, humour your friend and find another way to word your reminders of the good things in her life.
posted by orange swan at 5:56 AM on September 27, 2008

When I am preparing a gratitude list, it isn't necessarily aimed a someone, or some being. It is a reminder to me that things aren't as bad as they may seem.

If your friend, though, is worried about who to be grateful to, consider this quote from Bill Wilson, "Gratitude should go forward, rather than backward. In other words, if you carry the message to still others, you will be making the best possible repayment for the help given you."
posted by netbros at 6:02 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm an atheist and I'm grateful all the time. This may be because I have some sense of "the fates" or whatever it was that aligned to mean that whatever is going well for me is going well. In any case, this seems to be a separate problem from what ails your friend. One of the problems with encouraging people to be grateful as in this circumstance, is the presumption that if there's a thing or person or whatever responsible for the good stuff [being bipedal, opposable thumbs, being free from scurvy] there must also be a responsible party for the bad stuff [politics, economy, runny eggs] so this may not be the best approach. You may have better luck with just encouraging grace and/or just relative understanding of her position [decent teeth, not an indentured servant, a friend like you, whatever] which will at least give her a leg up once she is able to surmount her other problems.
posted by jessamyn at 6:07 AM on September 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

You don't have to express gratitude to someone in order to be grateful. Creating a list of the things in your life that are GOOD is an immensely healing thing to do.

If you need somewhere to direct gratitude, the universe as a whole and the general human community are also pretty decent recipients!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:07 AM on September 27, 2008

She will hopefully feel gratitude (or fortunate) when she acknowledges that many people are less fortunate. Maybe you can tell her to be like Pollyanna and play the glad game. I'm joking, of course, but it is helpful to put things in perspective. "A gallon of milk may be five bucks, but I'm glad I have five bucks to buy it." "A gallon of milk may be expensive, but at least it isn't tainted with melamine." "My job may suck, but I have a job." "I have all of my limbs and I don't have cancer! Whoo!" "My parents actually love me. I have friends", etc. Also, acknowledging the little things is very helpful: "These towels are so soft." "This tomato is so delicious." "My boss may be a jackass, but damn if I can't acknowledge these little "blessings" that make life so nice."

I'm an atheist as well and I'm full of gratitude. Being grateful doesn't mean I'm thanking a particular someone. I'm not grateful for a higher being for my "blessings". I'm only conscious that I have a lot of positives in my life and I'm very thankful for them. I think gratitude is something that is taught and modeled in childhood. Maybe she didn't get that teaching.

Your friend is angry at the moment and from your short description she may be blaming. The fact that she kept asking, "to whom" is a dead giveaway for a victim mentality. A person that doesn't have the sense to know she is fortunate, and focuses on the negative instead. It's unfortunate that she can't see the positives in her life. Sometimes when people are very angry they're not in the mood to be thankful for anything. Hopefully she'll come around. A life without gratitude is a miserable life.
posted by Fairchild at 6:16 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

"Appreciation" is a more useful word, for me, anyway.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:32 AM on September 27, 2008

Your friend is correct. All of the word choices indicate it. For example, to "show" some gratitude - why not feel gratitude? Because it comes from gratis. The concept is communication - it's a two-party event. "Thank you." "No, thank you."

Both together indicate that you wish your friend to act as if to display (whether or not she feels it) and give thanks to a second party who is implied by both "show" and "gratitude." It's additionally implied that, whenever you thank someone and are requested to do so whether or not you feel it, that they could easily withhold that benefit from you in the future - if you are not polite and do not give thanks, you won't get a cookie next time. In this case, it's the invisible pink unicorn which decides your future who must be placated with some bowing and scraping. Fortunate? Consider the Fortunes.

Your friend is definitely applying rational thought to the selection of words which imply a conflict with her atheistic worldview. Nobody is there to thank, therefore you're encouraging her to buck up by engaging in a meaningless gesture to show obescience to some unseen grinning idol which decides how many babies she has. However much you vague it up, that "Higher Power" the 12-Steppers talk about sounds a lot like G-d. She's recognized that implicit assumption in the linguistic framing and has rejected it.

It sounds a little bland, but "stop to ponder the ratio of things which are going well for you versus the probability that you might be born in a third world country where your genitalia were mutilated not long after birth" might at least put things in perspective.

Some of her anger, while fruitless, may be at valid targets, such as the economy. Anger can be a constructive force - if you're angry, that's a sign that you have spotted something which, to your mind, could be better. Just because you've got a dermatology textbook handy that shows some fairly horrific color plates of what could be a lot worse doesn't mean you might not want to clear up your acne problem.
posted by adipocere at 6:44 AM on September 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'd be more wound up by anyone telling me to show some gratitude. It's like people telling you to cheer up - it almost always seems to come from a place of "you're complaining too much/looking too sad, and it's harshing my mellow, so stop it", rather than concern and a genuine wish for the other person to feel better.

But if you really do want to help her feel better, I'm reading Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat at the moment - and it's making me very, very grateful. And that will give her an answer for "to whom": to the fates, and to blind luck. For every day it doesn't take away what makes us who we are.
posted by Ira_ at 6:45 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

It sounds like a phase, being angry at your life. Maybe things really do suck for her? Sure, the economy is frustrating, but for most of the stuff going on, she can really only hold herself accountable. If she works hard to turn things around, however, she could be grateful to herself. If you help, then she could be grateful to you.

She needs to go from "My life sucks! Phooey!" to "My life sucks! What steps should I take to make it not suck?" She should make a list (on paper!) of things that need to be improved, and then a list of actions she needs to take to improve those things.

If she doesn't want to do that, then she's not motivated enough to change things, and she's just complaining. Just because she's atheist doesn't mean she has to be a depressed existentialist.
posted by buriednexttoyou at 7:23 AM on September 27, 2008

This made me think of the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen ("giving and taking"). Rather than an exercise in forced gratitude at a difficult time, it is a way to be compassionate towards yourself and others -- which is hard when you are angry and wounded. I think that something like this helps interrupt the emotional pain cycle and face what's at the root of whatever's really wounding you.

But I'm not doing the concept justice -- here is an essay from Pema Chodron about it that your friend might find helpful:

In order to have compassion for others, we have to have compassion for ourselves.

In particular, to care about other people who are fearful, angry, jealous, overpowered by addictions of all kinds, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean —you name it— to have compassion and to care for these people, means not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves. In fact, one's whole attitude toward pain can change. Instead of fending it off and hiding from it, one could open one's heart and allow oneself to feel that pain, feel it as something that will soften and purify us and make us far more loving and kind.

The tonglen practice is a method for connecting with suffering —ours and that which is all around us— everywhere we go. It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us, no matter how cruel or cold we might seem
to be.

We begin the practice by taking on the suffering of a person we know to be hurting and who we wish to help. For instance, if you know of a child who is being hurt, you breathe in the wish to take away all the pain and fear of that child. Then, as you breathe out, you send the child happiness, joy or whatever would relieve their pain. This is the core of the practice: breathing in other's pain so they can be well and have more space to relax and open, and breathing out, sending them relaxation or whatever you feel would bring them relief and happiness. However, we often cannot do this practice because we come face to face with our own fear, our own resistance, anger, or whatever our personal pain, our personal stuckness happens to be at that moment.

At that point you can change the focus and begin to do tonglen for what you are feeling and for millions of others just like you who at that very moment of time are feeling exactly the same stuckness and misery. Maybe you are able to name your pain. You recognize it clearly as terror or revulsion or anger or wanting to get revenge. So you breathe in for all the people who are caught with that same emotion and you send out relief or whatever opens up the space for yourself and all those countless others. Maybe you can't name what you're feeling. But you can feel it —a tightness in the stomach, a heavy darkness or whatever. Just contact what you are feeling and breathe in, take it in —for all of us and send out relief to all of us.

People often say that this practice goes against the grain of how we usually hold ourselves together. Truthfully, this practice does go against the grain of wanting things on our own terms, of wanting it to work out for ourselves no matter what happens to the others. The practice dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves. In Buddhist language one would say that it dissolves the fixation and clinging of ego.

Tonglen reverses the usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure and, in the process, we become liberated from a very ancient prison of selfishness. We begin to feel love both for ourselves and others and also we being to take care of ourselves and others. It awakens our compassion and it also introduces us to a far larger view of reality. It introduces us to the unlimited spaciousness that Buddhists call shunyata. By doing the practice, we begin to connect with the open dimension of our being. At first we experience this as things not being such a big deal or so solid as they seemed before.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have just died, or for those that are in pain of any kind. It can be done either as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time. For example, if you are out walking and you see someone in pain —right on the spot you can begin to breathe in their pain and send some out some relief. Or, more likely, you might see someone in pain and look away because it brings up your fear or anger; it brings up your resistance and confusion.

So on the spot you can do tonglen for all the people who are just like you, for everyone who wishes to be compassionate but instead is afraid, for everyone who wishes to be brave but instead is a coward.

Rather than beating yourself up, use your own stuckness as a stepping stone to understanding what people are up against all over the world.

Breathe in for all of us and breathe out for all of us.

Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.

posted by mothershock at 7:39 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

See, if one of my friends got hung up on the semantics of "feeling" gratitude versus "showing" gratitude in this particular conversation, I'd ask if they needed any oil for their saddle.

Sadly I think it's a widespread trend to focus more on self than ever before. You don't "feel" gratitude without "showing" gratitude---you feel better about yourself AFTER feeling better for other people.

I hate, hate, hate this idea that there's fairness in the world and that people regularly get exactly what they want. I work with a girl for whom nothing is "fair", and I routinely mention to her that there are far greater injustices in the world than, say, her having to work all the way until 6 or having to go to the AVI's insead of the BVI's on her cruise.

I believe that both true wisdom AND happiness can only be attained through trials by fire---and I generally find that people who complain the most are people who haven't ever had to endure any real honestly horrible thing. People will tear me up here for saying that everyone should endure something bad---but there's no rich without poor or black without white.

Now, for the question at hand, to whom should she show gratitude? Her community, flowers, gardens, things that make her smile, babies, cute boys (or girls, whatever), the sunshine, the rain, cool breezes on a warm day. Less more of what I *want* and more of what I *have*, and to give up the idea that obtaining or acquiring will make you happy. Of course, I believe you make your own happiness, you can't expect to just receive it...(without gratitude.)
posted by TomMelee at 8:26 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm agnostic, and I feel grateful all the time. Here's how I look at it:

When you win in poker, you feel grateful. To who? To, as jessamyn said, "the fates", which aren't necessarily a spiritual force. You feel grateful because you know that the odds may not have been in your favor to win, but for whatever reason, you did anyway.

And that's true for just about everything. In any good, positive situation, there was a pretty good chance that things could have worked out differently. You could have missed a bus that brought you to a class where you learned something new. You could have stayed in on a night when you met your current best friend. Your resume for the job you have could have been lost in the mail. All of these situations were possible, if not as equally likely as any situation you're enjoying now.

And, on a deeper level: your parents could have never met. Or, they could have met, but have not had sex on the night you were conceived. You could have never existed. Hell, humanity could have never existed. We might have been killed off by Neanderthals or a stray asteroid at some point. Double hell, whatever confluences caused life on Earth could never have come together. This planet could have been an eternal wasteland. Or the planet could have never existed at all.

When I think about all of the alternate possibilities, all of the factors that were working against my being, much less my being and being relatively happy in life, I feel pretty damned grateful. Even if that gratitude is directed towards nothing but pure blind luck.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:44 AM on September 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you were dealt a good hand in a poker game, you'd be pleased and happy, and feel fortunate rather than grateful

Somehow, I missed orange swan using the exact same metaphor. D'oh. Maybe "fortunate" is a better term. Regardless, the point is that you can still feel some relief and joy at the very fact of your being, even if you don't believe in a higher power.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:47 AM on September 27, 2008

As an atheist myself, I'm puzzled that your friend doesn't grasp the idea of being grateful to nothing in particular. I'm constantly grateful. The emotion doesn't need an object...
posted by Nattie at 10:49 AM on September 27, 2008

I practice gratitude every single day. I have no real idea of what my religious leanings are, but I think they're somewhere between Buddhist and Pagan. I have never been grateful "to god" or whatever. Nor am I happy to someone, or sad to someone. I might be sad about someone, or happy about something, but it's a feeling within myself. I don't have to share that feeling with someone else.

Try suggesting that she "notices the good things in life". Having a comfy bed to sleep in. Good health. Money in the bank. Etc. She might be able to get her head round that a bit easier than the concept of gratitude.
posted by Solomon at 11:04 AM on September 27, 2008

Gratitude isn't an act, it's an attitude. I agree with game warden to the events rhino, appreciation is what she is missing. It doesn't have to be a list of all the misfortunes that she hasn't had to bear. That's not very productive in comparison to noticing what's right in front of you. Start with something like the taste of jam on toast.
posted by BigSky at 11:09 AM on September 27, 2008

I used to do yoga, and the (wonderful) teacher used to talk about this all the time. Feeling that gratitude is good for you, you certainly don't have to have a target for it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:25 AM on September 27, 2008

Being grateful is cultivating the art of being content and within that the celebrating what you do have - this article says it well.
posted by watercarrier at 11:48 AM on September 27, 2008

I usually associate being grateful (no pun intended) with some sort of acknowledgement of an external force who is resposible for doling out blessings or rewards for good behavior. Whenver I feel angry / down / out of control, I usually try to focus on my accomplishments - things I'm proud of. I don't feel fortunate for the $5 I have to buy milk, I'm proud of the fact that I earned that $5 - even if it's in a job that can be dull at times.

I'm proud of the fact that I have shaped my life - made choices that benefit me and my family, changed the course of my life when I've made bad choices, learned about new directions and opportunities, and have been able to make the best of things I can't change.

I also try to remember and acknowledge that I'm lucky. Lucky to be born a white, middle-class, suburban, well-educated, well-paid (and employed) American male. Many people don't receive the benefits of being in the right place at the right time.

I reserve gratitude for people who have made a difference in my life. This could include your parents, friends, co-workers, charities, social organizations, etc. I express my gratitude in different ways, but that expression does make me re-connect with more positive feelings.

Oh, and the username is a reference to the band...I'm usually pretty bitter ;-)
posted by grateful at 12:15 PM on September 27, 2008

I'm selfish, when I feel gratitude it's to myself. I don't believe in any higher power so when there's something that's worth appreciation, I'm gareful to myself for putting me in a place where I could expereince it.

If I'm in the park and I see a little kid having the time of their life and it makes me smile, I'm grateful (to myself) that I put myself in the place and mindset to see it.

When I have a damn tasty meal I am grateful to myself for making that happen for myself.

When I decide not to read the news for the weekend and I see other people freaking out and getting angry and frustrated, I'm grateful that I decided to not read the news, because I certainly don't need any more frustration.

And to get completely circular, when I feel grateful, I feel grateful. Because I didn't used to feel gratitude. I was angry and resentful to the whole world. It wasn't until I decided that I wanted an alternative to being angry all the time that I developed the sense for it. Not that I've become a pile of napping kittens by any means, but the world feels like a much nice place now, and it almost certainly is because it has one less cranky frustrated person in it.

However your friend needs to see that her negativity is a problem before she will be willing to put any energy into changing. That sounds like the real block for her at the moment.
posted by Ookseer at 1:05 PM on September 27, 2008

Man, I can't favorite Ira_'s comment hard enough. If one of my friends were telling me to show some gratitude, that would really, really piss me off. I'm pissed off just thinking about it. Advising me to reflect on the good things in my life is one thing, advising me to show gratitude is entirely another. The first is reflective, the second is performative. I am not your monkey; do not tell me what to do. I will be grateful for my life on my own time and in my own way, and if you think I am insufficiently demonstrative, that's your problem, not mine.

(I also am an atheist, if that makes any difference.)
posted by hades at 2:33 PM on September 27, 2008

I strongly believe that there is no external balancing force, only our psychological need to stay somewhere in the middle, looking up or down. Cancer patients can have happy days. People who have it all can be depressed. Some people have gone through hell lot of more hell than others.

Trying to find your objective place in the scale of bad fortunes and adjust your feelings to reflect it -- that's just not how it works. Scale of bad fortunes is not psychologically real, as you cannot have experienced the whole scale, your feelings are adjusted to only to those parts that you have experienced. You are deeply stuck where you are, and your happiness depends on if you think it is getting better or if it is getting worse. If there are real things that are helping you from getting worse and making life better, those are worthy subjects of gratitude. Friends, social security, public roads, playgrounds, fruits and vegetables, whatever. It is good that they exist. Be grateful of them to them. Thank you, lettuce, for being there.

Performative aspect of gratitude is not necessary, the point is to notice that if there are everyday things pulling you down, there are also everyday things that are keeping you up and there could be more of them and, once recognized, you could get more from existing ones.
posted by Free word order! at 5:52 PM on September 27, 2008

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