January 24

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Suffering and gratitude

By Jessica Allen

January 24, 2021


I think most of us engage in a daily tug-of-war between suffering and gratitude. 

If someone had told me to make a gratitude list after my son died, I would have punched them and screamed.  There are still some days where the idea of gratitude feels like a 10 ton weight I could never lift. 

A gentle encouragement: Resist telling a person in suffering that they have much to be grateful for.  In time they will come to realize it themselves, but don’t drown them with the happy hose when they’re in greatest despair.  It will make them feel as though their pain isn’t important.  Related: How to actually support someone in grief

What gratitude ISN’T

A magic happy pill that makes frustration, problems, and the pain of suffering disappear.

What gratitude IS

The very-most-peace-bringing shift in perspective.

Suffering

In moments of pain, I’ve learned the path of least resistance is to ride them out rather than turn the other way.  Feel it, feel all of it, because stuffing down suffering serves only to rot your heart and spirit from the inside out.  Letting those feelings and memories, bubble up and then bubble out is part of the healing process.  (I’ve tried it the stuffing way, and it led me down paths of nothing good; not the least of which were the food addiction path, the near-divorce path, and the self-shaming path.)

If I try to force gratitude before I’m done feeling frustrated, or angry, or hurt, all I do is mentally assassinate people and sabotage ideas in my mind.  Counterproductive, at the least. 

Once I’ve let my feelings be what they are, and the sting of them has subsided, then and only then can I make the shift to gratitude.  Sometimes this takes seconds or minutes.  Sometimes it takes overnight.  Sometimes it takes a few days, and in some cases (death and betrayal) it takes months or even years.  THIS IS OKAY. 

We don’t think it’s okay, because the world is uncomfortable with big, dark, unresolved feelings.  Instagram likes a bright filter.  Twitter likes a sharp jab.  Facebook likes a fairy tale.  Tik Tok likes a perfect show.  Which is why this is an unusual little corner of the internet.  We don’t have any real answers here… just real life in motion.  And real life takes time, and hard work, and it doesn’t fit into 140 characters or a lightbox. 

Suffering and gratitude 

My point here is that suffering and gratitude are a two-headed creature.  They coexist, sometimes more peacefully than others. Gratitude doesn’t sever the head of suffering.  Nor does suffering eliminate gratitude.

If you struggle with gratitude, perhaps the first step is backwards.  Let your heart beat just as it needs to.  Let your mind tumble your thoughts exactly as they come.  Sort them out carefully – lights, darks, brights.  Fold them gently.  Let go of the pieces that no longer fit or have irreparable damage.  Throw out the lint and trash.  Collect the little treasures like coins and bobby pins. 

Once all those thoughts and feelings have settled, or not, you might find some gratitude underneath. 

But you won’t find gratitude until you get still.  Calm.  Free. And once you get there, to that place of stillness and freedom, you’ll want to come back as often as you can.  That’s why the gratitude prophets are so passionate about it.  Practicing gratitude really does change your life.  (Most gurus fail to leave out the part about suffering and anger and frustration and pain, though.  Probably for the Instagram filter.)

Suffering is inevitable.  Misery is a choice.  I learned that from a sports medicine article a decade ago.

That sounds bleak.  But take heart, because there are many other choices equally as valid (and equally as accessible) as misery.

Choices equally-as-Accessible as misery

  • Wellness
  • Patience
  • Heart work
  • Head work
  • Stillness
  • Acceptance (Peace)
  • Gratitude

It’s not either/or.  It’s BOTH/AND.

  • Suffering and wellness.
  • Suffering and patience.
  • Suffering and peace.
  • Suffering and gratitude.

By embracing both, we stop the exhausting struggle between them, and the self-shaming that comes from “not being grateful enough” to counter our pain. 

Embracing suffering and gratitude together

To get there on your own, a journal helps.  Open a note on your phone, or scribble in the margins of your planner.  Talk it out on a voice memo.  Or discover a mind-clearing activity you enjoy like running or yoga or knitting.  The idea is to sit with the jumble long enough to parse out some clarity. 

If you can’t get from suffering to stillness to gratitude on your own, this is what counseling is for.  Now for the expectations disclaimer: therapy doesn’t fix your problems.  A good therapist will help you sort your laundry, so to speak.  They’ll help you make sense of what’s clunking around in your head and heart, help you determine what’s worth keeping and what needs to be let go, what treasures to pocket, and what to throw away altogether.  A therapist will give you some practical ideas for continuing that healthy processing throughout your daily life, no matter what you encounter.  They’ll help you when you backtrack, and help point out blind spots and places where you don’t realize you’re working against yourself.  They’ll take you from the struggle between suffering and gratitude to a place where you can hold both gently together. 

A quote from Stephen Colbert, who like all of us has experienced great tragedy in his life, and who has come through the fire long enough to understand this idea of the duality of suffering and gratitude:

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened. – Stephen Colbert

Me too.  All of it.  But that perspective took time to find.  And I have to continue to make peace with the “thing I most wish had not happened” every single day. 

A prayer

My prayer for you, for me, is for peace.  Be still.  Perhaps there’s gratitude waiting there.

HP, with thanks for you, 

J

Jessica Allen

About the author

Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have four children: LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and Elisha.

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