The Limits of Gratitude


I remember the Thanksgiving I began the tradition of asking everyone at the table to tell something they were grateful for.  Before then, we might have said grace or not, depending on who was there.  My extended family’s spiritual practices ranged from out and out atheists to Southern Baptists.

I didn’t have a particular religion, but I was spiritual, whatever that means.  I was in my mid-30s.  My two children were 9 and 10, I believe.  I don’t remember who in the extended family was there, except my younger brother.

He was around 30 and had been dealing with schizophrenia for about a decade, mostly through denial.  We were all in denial.  I’d hoped that the prompt would help him find something inside himself to be grateful for.  He was an incredibly creative and energetic person at times.  I wanted him to see that in himself.  Or to be grateful that he had a place to live, or for the food we were eating.  Something.  Anything.

When we got to him, he scowled and muttered that he had nothing to be thankful for.

“Nothing?” I asked.

“Nothing!” he said.  It broke my heart.

My gregarious and kind husband relieved the tension by talking about being thankful for family and food and some other things.  I’d had lots of experience covering up a broken heart, so it was easy to get on with the festivities.  My brother left after he ate.

I think he only spent one more holiday with the family, but each Thanksgiving, I remember that scowl and statement.  I’ve actually become grateful for it.  It reminds me that gratitude has its limits.  It’s taken me years, but it taught me that I can’t brush away, cure, or repair the darkest parts of life.

Minds, hearts, and bodies are so fragile.  Those who appear strong have invisible cracks and fissures on their souls that no amount of gratitude or denial can repair.  But we keep breathing and moving forward.

Unbearable things happen and we must carry them.  Some of us do it with grace, some of us with anger and despair.  I’ve carried my burdens both ways.  Sometimes I think anger and despair is the more authentic reaction, but the more I intentionally practice gratitude, the more I realize there are an infinite number of invisible forces helping me bear my burdens.

Since that Thanksgiving, my brother died a sad and lonely death, my own health has deteriorated from a disease called Transverse Myelitis that has compromised my strength, energy, ability to walk, and my ability to have a job.   Other loved ones have died, have suffered injuries and losses.  Wars have continued to mar and scar the world.  We rush blindly toward our own destruction.


And yet, and yet…I’m more and more grateful for the challenges and heartbreaks I’ve experienced.  I’m so much more aware of how one thing carries the other, how we are always in darkness and light, always fully alive but stumbling toward the mystery of death.

The book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford, is the story of the author’s journey to healing after being in a horrific car accident when he was 13.  His family’s car skidded off an overpass, killing his father and sister and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.  A quote from him that I hold close to me is:

“When I ‘left’ my body during my traumatic experiences, it was my body that kept tracking toward living.  It was my body that kept moving blood both to and from my heart.  Often, as we age and can no longer do what we once could, we say that our bodies are failing us.  That is misguided.  In fact, our bodies continue to carry out the processes of life with unwavering devotion.  They will always move toward living for as long as they possibly can.”


My life seems dark at times and I think I can’t bear another challenge.  I’ve learned enough, thank you very much.  Nevertheless, more challenges are coming for me.  As long as I walk this earth, along with every other human, I’ll struggle with loss and sorrow.

So my work is to not let it blind me to the beauty of nature, the cycle of seasons, the comfort of good friends and the blessing of a roof over my head.  I have to make an effort to balance the light and the dark.

A week ago, I was talking to a child in the neighborhood about being caught out in a rainstorm.  She said, “I saw you!  You were talking to a plant.”

I laughed.  I was actually taking a picture of a maple sapling growing from the center of a rhododendron bush, but I was in fact, talking to a plant.  Or communing with it.  Capturing it, too, treasuring it.  It was a thing of beauty on a cold stormy day.  I’m glad I didn’t keep my head down in the rain and miss these growing things.


I know one day, my life will be over, and I’ll flit away into the mystery.  While I’m here, I’ll continue to pay attention when I can, and cry when I need to.

I’m mortal.  That’s the thing I’m most grateful for.


I’ll end this with a link to a lovely review by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings of a posthumous collection of Oliver Sack’s essays that he wrote while he was dying, aptly titled Gratitude:

Thanks, my friends, for reading my post.

Spring Redemption


11 thoughts on “The Limits of Gratitude

  1. This was just a remarkable post – lovely in every way Joy. Yesterday, I stayed off the computer and enjoyed other activities. Coming on the computer today, I am filled with these amazing feelings of love and gratitude while reading what was posted yesterday, what friends are thankful for – always a beautiful thing to share. I don’t think I tell you enough, but your posts are always a treat – a gift to read.

    1. Thanks so much, Lisa. It’s always a delight to know my writing is meaningful to someone besides myself. I find the more things I’m thankful for, the more I have to be thankful for. It grows as I pay attention.

  2. I loved this post, not only because the writing is stunning (as always), but also because you addressed the “limits of Gratitude”. Despair happens to us all, to a greater or lesser degree, and sometimes it’s knowing about the darkest times of others that allows us to feel connected.

    1. Yes! And we have to resist the urge to put a happy face on everything. I love how the yin/yang symbol states it: a little light in the dark, a little dark in the light. Thanks for continuing to read my posts.

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