Quaker Practice

The Dark Side of Gratitude

January, the season of resolutions, is always a time when I vow to do better with my Gratitude Practice. I usually start out strong, listing three things every day that I am grateful for, but – inevitably – sometime in the cold, dark days of February when it looks like winter will never end, I give it up. I’m not sure why. But I found a clue the other day: a note to myself that I should write a blog about the dark side of gratitude. And that was all it said; I had no idea what I had meant when I made that note months earlier.

I sat in worship the next First Day trying to figure out what that note was about. Was it frustration that made me think that gratitude could have a dark side? Rebellion against the treacly thought that I should focus only on what is good in my life? Was it – dare I say it – boredom with listing my obvious blessings? I didn’t know.

It did occur to me, though, that focusing on my blessings all the time could render me smug if I didn’t watch myself. When I thought about all I have – abundant food, comfortable shelter, a loving family, security – it’s more than a little embarrassing, especially when there are so many people struggling with war and hunger and illness and fear. I’m not sure I should be celebrating my blessings every day; it feels self-serving.

And so I said something like that during After-Thoughts at the close of Worship that day, to see if anyone else in our Meeting had similar concerns with gratitude. We talked about it a bit, and then later I got a thoughtful email from one of our group, Kristin, and here is what she had to say:

“I was thinking about what you said today about the ‘dark side of gratitude.’ If it’s truly gratitude, I’m not sure if there is a dark side. I think everyone has the opportunity to access gratitude, no matter where they are in life. You mentioned a smugness, for example, if a person was grateful for all they have in life (family, love, possessions, etc.), and perhaps feeling like they are better than others. I am not sure how things change when a person’s basic needs are not met, but I was recalling back to those days when I lived with my kids in a camper. Even though my life felt like it was in shambles, I was extremely grateful for my children, my family and friends, and the place that I called home. I was grateful for the Quaker Meeting in Grass Valley, and the therapist who helped me move through my divorce.”

“As we moved to a one-room studio I was grateful for a real-sized fridge and oven, where I could cook cornbread without it being a major feat, and the kids had a bathtub, and I was grateful throughout for my children, my friends and family, and my job that supported us. Now we are in a house, and I am grateful for all I have – friends, family, a place to call home. But in the last few years we’ve evacuated from wildfires a couple times. And each time, I only pack camping gear and a few things. Mostly the car is full of kids and chickens and the dog. Even though I am grateful for where I live, I could lose all my possessions. But as long as I have my kids, that is all that matters.”

“I think gratitude pairs well with humility; it counters that smugness or arrogance you mention. I also think it’s important to recognize gratitude most importantly for those things that are not possessions: family, friends, relationships, community.” 

In response to Kristin’s thoughtful message, I bow down in thanks. There is wisdom aplenty in our Meeting and I love how these varying perspectives help illuminate my life. So, with that, and a good dose of humility, I’m going to re-start my gratitude practice by focusing on what matters most – my own kids, my supportive and patient husband, the good green earth outside my window, and my circle of Quaker Friends who always get me to think again.

Wendy Swallow, RFM Blog Editor, and Kristin Winford, RFM Blog Contributor

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.