on forbidden gratitude overcoming guilt

On (forbidden) gratitude

This morning I bathed in gratitude during the long sunrise. We got home last night. Three weeks in Thailand, where the sun approaches morning in 10 minutes. And now: a shower in my own space, a healthy meal I cooked to my tastes, a beautiful home with its dark floors, generous windows, easy order. With gratitude I felt the beauty of my world back home, and felt right being there.

The feeling was new because normally gratitude for my home was forbidden. Typically, some undercurrent of guilt is there instead. It took living on the edge of my comfort zone for a while to be able to walk into a ready appreciation of my everyday life.

Why the guilt? I spent a decade either studying or working in the field of environmental science, which had me create a sort of mental accounting to understand my world. Who and what was helping or hurting the planet? You could be either on one side or the other.

My mental accounting has firmly planted me in the Part of the Problem camp. I live in Canada, a wealthy country, and me embarrassingly part of its middle-class. And without feeling like my actions amounted to enough to make up for my level of consumption, for a long time I’ve held the belief that my guilt pays back some of this debt. To be grateful would be akin to willful unconsciousness of global issues.

I spent the early morning after our arrival cleaning up my home with a type of awareness I rarely have while cleaning (it could be said the cleaning itself is also rare). I appreciated our floor and its colour as I swept. With soap and water, I welcomed our spatulas, spoons and scissors back into my life and appreciated the convenience they brought. My care and gratitude felt important. This morning was a ritual honouring the objects in my life. During and after I felt peace and rightness where I was.

So often it feels like there are always too many objects, each emitting a barely audible buzz. I often long to get rid of everything, to have just one fork, one knife, one spoon. And at one time, I did.

These objects became almost sacred through daily use. The ritual of eating. The lack of choice building up an almost superstitious reverence of the things I had. I appreciated each thing because each felt indispensable. Cleaning, unpacking, repacking, and using these things with appreciation were my daily rituals to honour them.

I felt alive not because I was living close to nothingness, but because I was living full of gratitude.

That time passed and now I store my clothes in a dresser once again, although I’ve held on to a few frugal habits that can entertain or perplex my partner. Unfortunately, as their number grew, gratitude for the objects in my life became forbidden.

Since then, it’s been harder to feel right being wherever I am. Being honest with myself, I know the contributions I’ve made through volunteering, activism and donations to charities have done helplessly little to aid others’ suffering, and so I’ve paid the rest of my perceived debt by shouldering as much guilt as my awareness can let in. It’s been the low hum that reverberates from every comfort. It’s left me adrift in my own home, colliding with early 21st century capitalism, afraid to sink my roots down.

Occasionally clients come in who, through various circumstances, have been pressed up against the sharp end of their guilt when trying to better their lives, and during our sessions I feel my own guilt pressing against the inside of my ribs. I acknowledge it but don’t engage the feeling, doing a practiced sidestep to attend to them. Ironically, my heart has already forgiven them, but my own transgressions feel too large to explore.

This morning, another perspective came through during my cleaning ritual. Guilt called for an Ultimate Accounting of what I deserve. It wanted land that was free and clear. Gratitude instead announced my place in the family of things.

That sweet energy of gratitude sprung up while appreciating all those forbidden things. I realized I couldn’t choose the things for which I was grateful. That’s not how it works. Guilt can’t be substituted for gratitude when our social rules tell us we’ve no right to it. (Maybe that’s why guilty pleasures are the most enjoyed!) It shuts down the energy of the heart to do so.

Gratitude opened my heart, and gentle wave upon wave expanded to include the others in my life, my town, my world as it is. I cautiously allowed myself to be exactly where I am, in the midst of everything, without needing to pay the usual emotional toll. I felt myself tentatively send roots down. Am I allowed to grow here? Will it change me? I felt my heart open even more, realizing right away how much more I’m able to serve from this place of gratitude. The wisdom within gratitude offered the bigger perspective I’d been missing.

Guilt hardens and sharpens – the service it demands to ease its burden is not given from the heart. Its calculations come from the mind, trying to steer toward a predetermined outcome. That outcome never really evens the score. The lens it creates is one through which we judge both self and others, instead of seeing what’s really there.

Gratitude opens and expands. It offers service freely, and from a place of deeper knowing as to what is really needed. It makes available the greatest parts of the human spirit, even in the midst of suffering or loss. It doesn’t keep score. It’s the basis of being in a type of right relationship with things. I realized it’s possible to acknowledge the morally complex path things take before they enter our life while also being grateful for the comfort they bring. Gratitude doesn’t stop right action.

The Ulltimate Accounting still hasn’t been entirely silenced in my mind. But greater compassion has softened it, and new perspectives have arisen on the ways that gratitude guides me to help others.

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