What is gratitude?

November is the month of gratitude in the US. We are to live this month with “an attitude of gratitude” and be thankful for…everything? 

A quick internet search of “gratitude quotes” came up with hundreds of them. Everyone from the ancient Greek philosopher, Epictetus, to  Ralph Waldo Emerson to Willy Nelson apparently has had something profound to say about gratitude.

But…what IS gratitude? What exactly IS the attitude I’m supposed to have this month? And what if something is shitty that I’m NOT thankful for? How does that fit in?

I’ve been diving into this whole idea in my morning soul pages. We hear so much about manifesting vs. living in scarcity vs. an abundance mindset. And at the surface, that’s what we’re supposed to be thankful for, our abundance and all the stuff we have.

But again, what does that mean other than saying, “thanks” to the universe or God for whatever? And what does an abundance mindset “look like”? As I explored this, my mind asked the questions it always asks, “Do I want to go there? Is it meaningful?” and “If so, how do I get there?” And “what about the crappy stuff? Where does that fit?”

As often happens, I realized that I’ve made this FAR more complicated than it probably needs to be but that also makes me ponder ideas so I understand them which actually is probably a good thing.

Here’s what I discovered:  gratitude is merely a state of HAVING and being thankful for the having whereas lack or scarcity which is being in a state of WANTING. That’s all.

In the US, we tend to live in or focus on one of these states or the other. Our culture dictates an “either/or” dichotomy. And all of the prosperity, abundance, and manifestation teachings that are so prevalent reinforce this.

It’s like I have this choice that I can either look at the world through LACK, as in, “OMG, I only wrote 1000 words on my novel this week when I wanted to write 5000. I’m a LOSER.”

Or, I can look at the world through an ABUNDANCE approach and acknowledge that “OMG – I’ve written 1000 words this week, so that’s more than I had last week. Words for the WIN.”

So that was my first realization. Gratitude is merely recognizing what I have and saying, “Thanks universe, you rock.” And an abundance mindset is merely staying there, focusing on the having NOT the wanting.

Pretty deep, right?

Actually, no. That’s the surface. Those are NOT the only two ways to look at the world. And it seems that in the current season of gratitude and the next crazy commercial Christmas season that’s about to hit, that’s about as deep as we tend to go.

The ideas of abundance and scarcity are fairly easy to quantify ie. do I have enough money/food/shelter/stuff or not? But, there’s WAY more there. If we go deeper, we must look at our core values are and IF we’re living them because THAT’s where the deep joy and true abundance in life come NOT from all the stuff. And that’s also where the shitty stuff fits in. It’s about realizing that the crap is telling us how we’re not aligned with our soulful self.

I learned this a few years ago, but I’ve been reminded of it this fall.

During the spring of 2015, I was miserable at work., teaching full time and grading papers for endless hours every day. This may sound crazy, but I was FAR more miserable in the spring than I was a few months later during the fall of 2015 when my husband was in the hospital critically ill and fighting for his life. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense until you dive deeper.

As a teacher, I struggled daily with how the current educational system devalues the individual children and teachers. It’s a SYSTEM and that system comes before the PEOPLE which goes against everything I believe in. If I have a belief in the innate creativity and gifts of every human and connecting with those humans is crucial to me, how can I joyfully work, every day, in a system that denies and devalues that belief? I couldn’t. I felt like my soul was getting sucked out of my body every day as I was forced to evaluate and give a number to my students’ creative efforts rather than honoring, supporting, and valuing their gifts. Even writing that makes my heart race.

I struggled because in that system I had an incredibly difficult time expressing and living my values of living in loving connection with others, freedom, and creating beauty. But I still didn’t really get that’s why I was struggling. I couldn’t figure it out and it was so frustrating.

So, that spring, I stepped back and went to teaching part-time.

Then, my husband got sick. When Gary was sick, I was free to care for him, to sit by his side, hold his hand, and pray. I could value him as an individual and give him all of my love and attention. Even though it was scary and hard, I was free to love and give. This time period was the ONLY four-month stretch in over a decade that I did NOT get a migraine, even though I was sleeping in the hospital, Gary had 24 surgeries, and I took our daughter to start college while he lay in the ICU on a ventilator.

It was physically, emotionally, and spiritually brutal. And I was physically healthier than I’d been in years. What?!?

The lesson is one that is ongoing for me, and here it is: when I live a life that honors my values and beliefs every single day, I am healthier, happier, and more abundant than when I don’t.

Now…the trick is to keep those values and conditions at the top of my mind and live them every. single. day. My body tells me when I forget, with a migraine or an aching hip, and I know I’m off track.

For that, I am grateful.

I am living a life that gives me the freedom to dive deep into my values, to learn what they are, to begin to understand them, and to live them. That is an abundant life and a life where the shitty stuff is there to tell me what’s up and to get me back in line with the person my soul came here to be.

So what IS gratitude? It’s being thankful for a life that gives me everything I need (both “good” and “bad” whatever that may be) so I can course correct and live a life aligned with my deepest values.

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