I remember, when I was young, my dad often told me I wasn’t “grateful” enough for the things I’d been given.
Very often, actually. Often enough that I remember being told it at various ages.
I remember feeling confused and sad when he said this.
I felt plenty grateful for what I had.
I don’t think I took it for granted. I was aware that there were people who didn’t have either the opportunities or the possessions I was lucky enough to have.
I didn’t understand what my dad meant when he said I was “ungrateful.” He never got more specific than that.
Now that I’m grown up— sort of, anyway— I think I understand why he said that.
I think my dad’s assertion that I was “ungrateful” came in response to me acknowledging the pain I was experiencing as a kid.
As a kid, I was sad a lot.
I was anxious. I was lonely.
I had real trouble relating and connecting to other people. And I would often end up in kind of this awful loop where I’d anxiously avoid other people; and then other people would avoid me; then I’d feel lonely and inadequate; and so I’d avoid other people some more.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
As you might imagine, it’s hard for a kid caught in that cycle to NOT feel depressed.
On top of that, I wasn’t great at school. It was generally acknowledged that I was smart— but it was also well established that I was “lazy” and often failed to do homework or study for exams.
Neither I, nor my parents, knew what ADHD was at the time.
In any event, I think my dad looked at the fact that he had done his job: he had provided me with a stable home, with material comfort, and with quality educational opportunities.
And in return, all I was giving him was a “bad attitude,” an unwillingness to be open and social with the family, and a refusal to “work” at school.
Thus, he surmised I was ungrateful.
I imagine a lot of people reading this might be able to identify.
There are a lot of people who assume that, if we acknowledge pain in our lives, or if we are observably affected by past or present “trauma,” that we are somehow “ungrateful.”
Let me tell you what nobody told me: you can be both wounded and grateful.
The fact that you have things to be grateful for does not mean you’ll never struggle— or that it’s somehow wrong or distasteful to acknowledge you are struggling.
Gratitude and pain are not mutually exclusive.
My dad died four years ago around this time of year. What had begun as a trip home for Thanksgiving in 2015 turned into the final hours I spent with him.
He couldn’t speak near the end. Our last conversation was him writing questions and responses on the back of an envelope as I responded to him verbally.
I still have that envelope, with his shaky handwriting, tucked away in my top desk drawer.
He was in a lot of pain in the last few years of his life.
I have no idea whether he developed perspective on whether pain and gratitude can coexist.
I hope he did.
But for everyone reading this: do not fall into the black and white, all-or-nothing thinking trap of assuming that if you’re struggling, you’re insufficiently grateful.
Every day I work with people who are suffering, but who are grateful.
Grateful for their kids; for their pets; for their hobbies; for their art; for music; for their faith.
Sometimes they even say they’re grateful for therapy.
I believe them.
Feel grateful for the things you have, to the extent that you have the emotional bandwidth to do so.
Don’t let anyone tell you what gratitude “should” and “shouldn’t” mean to you.
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