On Gratitude, and Off: Part 1

"Sorrow doesn't need us to be thankful for it." --Sonya Huber

In Sonya Huber's book about living with RA, "Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System," she writes about the issue of having gratitude in the face of pain and illness. I've written about her book before, because I find her thoughts to be incredibly spot-on regarding what it's like to have RA and cope with pain every day--especially as a young woman. Her reflections on gratitude and whether or not we ought to be thankful for our disease also resonate a lot with me.

Being grateful to live with a chronic illness?

Huber begins Part 4 of the book ("Bitchiness As Treatment Protocol") responding to a blog entry she reads in which a woman with multiple sclerosis lists the ways she's grateful for her illness. The woman writes that MS has "improved her life in concrete ways, giving her a purpose and a community of fellow sufferers." Huber's immediate reaction is that she feels "both draw in and repelled" by this.

She goes on to say that while she understands what the woman means, she still wishes that she would not have said it. Why? Huber empathizes with those who are not grateful to be living with a chronic illness; who instead feel bitter and depressed and crushed by it. And she points out that it's perfectly OK to feel this way.

"What I want is more separation from the implicit requirement that we be happy for everything that happens to us--that we not mourn as a part of being grateful," says Huber. "I want release from cartoon gratitude."

This kind of gratitude is phony to me.

Huber doesn't explain the phrase "cartoon gratitude" in the essay, but I interpret it as a sort of phony, one-dimensional, simplified version of thankfulness. Cartoon gratitude is light and easy and maybe hides or ignores the deeper and more complex layers of gratitude. I think society also tries very hard to force us into submitting to this kind of gratitude, especially when dealing with major hardships in life, such as illness.

Be happy things aren't worse.

Look on the bright side.

Count your blessings.

Others are worse off than you.

Life is short, be thankful for everything.

We've all heard these platitudes and many more like them; so much so that I think it's become a stigma to admit to not being grateful for everything in life. People are always telling each other to "be strong" and "be brave" and "move forward" when knocked down by adversity. And if you're not, you're seen as a whiny wimp or a crybaby.

Our feelings our valid and we don't have to be thankful for them.

But what if you don't want to be strong? What if all you really want to do is curl up in a ball and cry your eyes out? What if you don't accept your disease but hate it with overwhelming rage and disgust? What if you still weep, many years after getting RA, for the person you once were? It's not easy to feel thankful for something that assaults your body with ferocious pain and continually knocks you down in life.

It's normal to not feel grateful.

Being told that "others are worse off than you" or that "you just need to accept your disease" can also feel more than a bit insulting. Sure, many people are worse off, but that doesn't mean that your pain and suffering are not valid or important. It doesn't erase the fact that you've been struck with a disease that works day and night to destroy your body and your life. It's pretty normal to not feel grateful for these things, I think.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of gratitude is: "the state of being grateful: THANKFULNESS." Huber doesn't think she should be required to say "thank you" to the universe for her pain. I don't think so, either.

"[It] seems like a level of abjection that insults the dignity of the ill," says Huber. "Pain is real, after all. Sorrow doesn't need us to be thankful for it."

To read "On Gratitude, and Off: Part 2", click here.

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