Why is Gratitude Hard?
Whether I’d like to acknowledge it or not to the guilt-ridden part of me, while I was fussing over getting into the perfect college or frustrated over a five-hour bug that I couldn’t get rid of, 300,000 people died. My town (Acton, Massachusetts) has around 20,000 people.
300,000. 15 Actons. 75,000 households.
I’m at that age where my parents are starting to get calls from their friends, who tell them that their parents have recently passed away. This has happened many times in the past few weeks (all non-COVID related reasons).
But all of this death became background noise to me. Death becoming background noise is the default for all of us. Our brain has mechanisms to prevent a fear of death from entering our day-to-day lives. In A Worm at the Core, Solomon talks about how we have proximal and distal terror management defenses against a fear of death. He alludes them to a roofed hut with buckets underneath during a rainy season. The distal defenses are like the roof of the hut to block the water from entering, and the buckets are there to pick up the leftover water. These mechanisms are surely beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint. We can’t remain crippled after every reminder of death.
That being said, death can play a positive role in our lives. If we think of life as a play, death shouldn’t be — or doesn’t always have to be — an actor who comes and goes. Rather, it should play its role as a backdrop. Not death directly — gratitude.
I did experience one moment of immense gratitude this year. I remember it clearly. I was lying in bed one arbitrary night and the weight of the COVID situation just flooded over me. It wasn’t the situation itself that brought the emotion, but rather the direct juxtaposition with my life conditions. Here I was, an American citizen with three living family members. Here I was, able to choose to do things I wanted to do. And here I was, able to get frustrated on the most arbitrary things that no one will care about a century from now. I cried into my pillow that night.
Here, I’d like to interject to quote a small section from one of my college application supplemental essays.
The only true notion of privilege I’d felt before was temporary, paired with fleeting emotions from one-hour documentaries on rural education.
That night, I played a documentary in my head, felt the emotions, and the next day everything in my life was back to normal, back to the baseline.
There’s always a voice in my head telling me that I’m going to use gratitude as an excuse to be complacent. Maybe I didn’t achieve that ambitious goal of mine because of a lack of discipline or focus. But oh — I need to be grateful for everything that I already have.
In 2020, I’ve realized that gratitude isn’t an excuse for complacency, nor should it be a temporary surge of emotion. It’s an ambient peace that gives meaning to everything you do and is a prerequisite to any form of meaningful success.
Gratitude won’t come through a larger picture oversight of a situation, but a first-hand or second-hand look at a situation.
2021 is going to be a year where I’m intentional about how I cultivate gratitude. I want to go deeper than appreciating things that I could live without, and in order to do so, I need to reach for unique experiences that push me into my discomfort zone. Experiences that no one is going to hand to me on a platter. Travel to new countries, large scale hiking, and skydiving are some activities in mind so far. These are activities that’ll surely leave a new perspective.