Recently I read an article about The Selfish Side of Gratitude by Barbara Ehrenreich (click on the title for link). How can gratitude and selfish be in the same sentence? After all, we all believe that the practice of gratitude is the antidote of selfishness. She made a few good points and I can't help but to feel a bit uneasy.
For as long as I can remember, my deadly sin of choice is envy. It is never about the thing or the experience itself -- it is always about what the other have, or experience, or... (insert the comparison object du jour). Envy reinforces the other-ness, the idea that I am not them and therefore they are not me. My relationships are tinged purple with jealousy and never feel 100% authentic. Can I ever feel genuine happiness over others' success and good fortune? I'm sure I'm not alone; just think about the problems of the world, aren't they variations of "us v.s. them?" This poison is truly deadly.
The need to compare has, apparently, created enough suffering for me and I found a glimmer of hope through gratitude. Therefore, one can argue that my whole gratitude journey is about finding a relief from my own suffering. I also know that it does not matter where one starts in this journey, even if every single entry in the gratitude journal reeks with selfishness like, "I am thankful that I have home/food/car/X, not like others who do not have home/food/car/X," the journey will undoubtedly lead somewhere. If you have been following me, you know that I have been pondering a lot about consuming less and possessing mindfully. Along with this urge, I also feel a quiet knowing that, although I may not have what I want in my lifetime, I will be fine: I may never tick-off every items in my bucket list, or vacation in places I want to, or for my child to have experiences his classmates have, or my family to have the latest cars, or move to a bigger home, etc, etc. And more than just fine, I will thrive.
What Ehrenreich missed is the long term, unexpected gain of practicing gratitude. My journey in gratitude started from selfish reasons but it has shortened the gap between me and the other. I understand how it feels to be thankful to have a home in rainy days, and to have other things that make life less miserable. I understand how it feels to accept a not-so-perfect life situation and at the same time not giving up for better things. I understand how it feels to be in the mental rabbit hole of wanting, brokenness, against-ness and the gratitude when I rediscovered a glimpse of my own wholeness. If these experiences are possible for me, they are possible for everyone.
Gratitude is not all about sharing and giving and thankfulness -- it is also about moving on past my other-ness, "Yeah, I know how that feels. I have been there." You and I, we are more alike than different. Just as my gratitude muscle enables me to look at pretty things sold in stores and not feel the urge to buy them, it helps me to say, "A promotion? Congratulations, I'm so excited for you!" with more ease, joy, authenticity, and less envy and selfishness.
Have you embarked on a journey of gratitude or other spiritual practices? Where have your practices lead you?