If you didn’t learn in childhood that life is never perfect, you will most likely learn it in adulthood. You will also learn that life needn’t be perfect for it to be good and wonderful and spectacular. And in those times, gratitude flows like the sweet summer rain – easily, and with a freshness that seems to fall to the earth from heaven itself.
Ideally, gratitude, like happiness, should thrive irrespective of circumstance. But I think most of us would be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit that at least in the moment, we are neither happy nor grateful for a broken heart, or a sick child, or the loss of a loved one, or the many disappointments, failures, and rejections one will endure in a single lifetime. It is hard to be grateful and happy for pain in the moment; it is hard because you know that life always has a lot of it – pain, that is – in full supply. It never runs out.
And this pain – enduring this pain – can make you bitter. It can make you angry and lonely and even hateful towards humanity entirely, and then also towards your specific human existence. Some of us let the pain pass – it eventually goes away. Some of us live in denial of it – until it catches up with us later. Some of us – the best of us – learn to accept it and face it and learn from it and live with it. And yet still, some retain it, hold onto it, and are defined by it. The latter, one might say, would be the “worst” of us.
I have learned, however, that though one’s pain is never an excuse to treat others inhumanly, pain can make monsters out of decent people. It’s why I believe rather than forcing others into positive states of mind prematurely, let them be in their pain. Let them be allowed to experience and express the entirety of the failure of people, and of the world, to be perfect. You don’t end people’s pain by rushing them through it. Instead, you reflect an inability to be with others in their dark night, in their fight against monsters, in their confrontations of the imperfections of their humanity, in their reality and the reality that pain is part and parcel of the human experience. You can’t opt out of it.
But you can opt out of gratitude and happiness. You can opt out of these things for a time – as many of us do when we’re in pain. Or you can opt out of them for a lifetime, deciding that neither of those things are worth working for and hoping for in this fallen world. The numbness and mundanity of life seem preferable to the extremes of highs and lows, especially those lows. And even when you feel the judgment of the world for not wanting or not knowing how to be happy or grateful, you do what makes sense to you.
People, you think, are tiresome with their boring clichés about pain and suffering, and its supposed result ultimately being for good. People, who always seem to be quite good at preaching, and not as good at practicing, dare to give you advice. People, who haven’t lived through your existence, how dare they, offer you words on how to go about it? You would be right about some of it – people are full of shit. A lot of us; all of us.
But you would be wrong about something too – thinking that people don’t experience your pain. You would be wrong in thinking that you’ve been the only one to live with a broken heart, or a sick child, or mourn the loss of a loved one. You would be wrong to think that nobody else has experienced your disappointments and failures and rejections. Many of us have lived each other’s pains, and long before we were here, countless people had lived these pains before us. For better or for worse, our pains are not unique. In the grand scheme of history and humanity, one could possibly claim that all pain is quite ordinary.
In this ordinary existence, in this understanding of the ubiquity of pain, you realize that those who are grateful are not so because their pains have been less than others. You realize that gratitude isn’t the outcome of hindsight and fate. Nor is it the prerogative of those who persevere over their monsters or even in dark times, those who see the bright side or count their blessings. Certainly, admittedly, these things help.
But when you know that pain is an ordinary experience, you become authentically grateful not to be alone in the world in your pains. You become grateful that even without knowing you and your pains specifically, people can understand you because they are you. It is a good thing not to be alone, and it is a great thing – even greater than being loved – to know that you are understood.
On any given day, the world is filled with misery. From the great human failings of war, to the everyday shortcoming of being around people, without seeing them. There are 1000 reasons not to be grateful, many of which honest people would even understand. But when you think of the ordinariness of it all – life, that is – you can also realize that there is an iridescent beauty that lives alongside the ordinary. And knowing this in the temporariness of any circumstance and all circumstance; knowing this in the temporary circumstance that is life, can allow you to consider gratitude, and then to choose it. And if you do, you would have found a way to be in this world, with a little bit of what seems like heaven on earth.
And maybe it is heaven and maybe it isn’t. But what you would have done is transformed the ordinary into something exceptional. And all of this from the objectivity of looking at the commonness of pain, having the courage to realize it in others, and concluding that if nothing else, life is better with gratitude than without it. So even when the pain deprives or devastates or consumes, you are quite certain that even in this moment, you are not the only one in the world who knows this pain, who has ever known this pain. This knowledge makes you kind; it makes you wise, it makes you love, and it always makes you grateful.