Why Are We So Ungrateful?
Not too long ago, I was angry about money. And not even that I didn’t have it, or that I wanted to buy something I couldn’t — though those moments have come and gone many times — but that it wasn’t coming quickly enough. My bank was processing things and it was taking more time than I thought appropriate, more time than I thought any bank should allot themselves in a time when I can refresh my personal banking page 50 times in a minute. The concept of being patient, of simply enjoying the fact that I wasn’t pressed at the moment, never crossed my mind. It was a matter of, “I want it, it’s not here, give it to me.”
It was at that moment that I suddenly felt a wave of deep, curling shame. I felt like I did when I was nine years old and my grandmother gave me a brisk smack across the face for calling her an ugly name when she was generous enough to take me out shopping one afternoon. “Little girls shouldn’t be fresh,” she told me as my face grew red and blotchy, as tears of indignation and embarrassment filled my eyes. And there, sitting on my bed and looking at my bank account with a feeling of profound exasperation, I felt that same childish impetuousness, that foot-stamping that the world is unfair, and worse, it is unfair in someone else’s favor. “Look at me,” I thought, “I’m still that little girl.”
And these moments happen all the time, it seems. So many times per day, per week, I have to consciously snap myself out of an incredibly juvenile pity party that serves no other purpose than to let everyone in my immediate vicinity know I was wronged, if only through exasperated sighs. What do I get out of this, though? Why is it so much easier to choose to complain about your job, or how hard work is, rather than be profoundly grateful to have a job, a roof over your head, and — lest we forget how enormous a privilege this is in itself — regular internet access with which to complain about it.
I am aware that there are things in life that are truly unfair, truly worth being upset about — and though I have lived a few, I know that the worst by far are yet to come. And I worry that when those moments come, I’ll have been too busy navel-gazing and complaining throughout the relative nothings that I won’t know how to deal with actual pain, actual difficulty. If I get this out of shape about having to pay old parking tickets that I rightfully earned, how will I feel when it falls to me to pay for a funeral of someone I never imagined would die?
When my friends and I gather, often the first things we will do is complain. It comes in different forms, yes — criticism of some pop culture tidbit we disapprove of, gossip about people we mutually know, light banter about “money problems” that exist largely in our minds — but it’s always the same. These are things we bond over as humans, things that remind us that we’re all suffering in some small, quiet way, even if we’re only bringing it on ourselves. There is almost a societal requirement that you don’t be too happy, that your celebrations of success or even just of complacency are muted and somewhat embarrassed, as you don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or less-than. We’re all happy for each other, but only to a point.
Even a compliment is often met with some qualifying statement meant to discredit it. “You look beautiful,” someone will say. “Oh, I’m disgusting, my hair is so gross today,” we’ll quickly reply. Is it true? Maybe. Why do we say it? Because to just simply say, “Thank you,” and appreciate the compliment would be almost vulgar. And one on top of the other, these small self-deprecations and complaints about our relatively extraordinary good fortune become the lens through which we see everything, especially ourselves. Seeing the downside of everything is simply what we do; it’s the decent and dignified thing. It means you are not a show-off.
But how profoundly sad. The fact that we are not waking up every morning with an enormous grin, with a deep gratitude to be alive and in relative good health, and with a deep awareness of all of the things we are so lucky to have, is a tragedy. I often feel the need to slap myself across the face, to pour cold water over my heard, to talk to myself in the mirror — yell at myself — and ask what in the world I could possibly complain about. Though gratitude often feels like a warm light just out of reach, a sun obscured by the clouds of self-pity and pessimism, I must remind myself daily that I can choose to enjoy everything that’s good, or I can torture myself with the absurdly minor and ultimately changeable things that are less-than perfect.
I want gratitude to be one of my defining features, something that directs me in life and makes every taste sweeter, every color almost too deep and rich to look at. The idea that I am here, today, breathing this air and sitting in this sun, that should be enough for anyone — really, what more can we ask for in life? And though complaint and sarcasm are the warm fire of sameness around which we’re all going to huddle from time to time, it’s important not to forget that it will never fulfill us, it will never give meaning or depth to our lives. The very ability to go home after a long day of beautiful normalcy and predictability and immediately begin to complain about it is such a profound luxury in itself, and one we won’t be afforded one day. We could stand to appreciate it more.
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