Gratitude is so venerated in our culture that it feels awkward to say that, despite my indifference to most cultural norms. Gratitude is one thing that nearly everyone agrees on, from the mainstream (check it out, there’s a whole holiday based on it in November — October if you’re Canadian), to the spiritualists who insist that gratitude is not just a noble pursuit for the sake of others, but the path to well-being for oneself, to the scientists who are publishing studies saying that the spiritualists have it right — there are measurable health benefits to the regular practice of gratitude.
And yet I despise it. The word triggers a powerful feeling of resentment that I doubt many could relate to. It’s a loaded word, evocative of someone making demands, denigrating me (and look at how the word grateful and denigrate share a good chunk of letters — though not, thankfully, a root word), and trying to guilt me into something. “Ingrate.” “You should be grateful.” It’s a moralizing word, an attempt to manipulate through shame, a word used by the powerful to attempt to gain compliance from the powerless, or, failing that, to punish them emotionally for refusing to comply.
The idea of feeling grateful makes me feel sick inside. It’s bound up with a feeling of inferiority, of lack of agency, of inability to do for oneself and neediness and dependence. The powerful may be self-reliant or even benevolent, but the powerless lack the ability, therefore they must be grateful for what is done for them.
Gratitude is a dirty word to me, an evil word, a tool of oppression.
And I’m not sure why. I can’t seem to identify any memories that would account for this visceral reaction, this immediate and instinctive hatred that wells up at the very mention of a word that, to everyone else, seems to represent something wonderful and healing, something that helps them focus on the positive and keep their heads up in hard times.
I’ve considered the words for some related concepts and they don’t have the same effect. Starting on Google with “define: grateful”, I come up with “feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness; thankful.” and “synonyms: thankful, appreciative”. No problem with any of those words. Appreciation is great, thankfulness, when appropriate, is fantastic. These emotions come from a place of equality for me, or at least a power-neutral place.
“define: appreciative” gets a little more complicated: “feeling or showing gratitude or pleasure.” Ignoring the word gratitude (or perhaps substituting thankfulness) makes this a positive thing, but check out the synonyms: “grateful for, thankful for, obliged for, indebted for, in someone’s debt for”. Ooh. Obliged. Indebted. Now you OWE someone something. Oddly, I associate those meanings with gratitude, but not with appreciation.
“define: thankful” is simple and positive: “pleased and relieved”, with synonyms “grateful, appreciative, filled with gratitude, relieved”. Again, apart from the Evil Word, nothing to balk at here.
I almost stopped there, but then went back to that word “obliged” and decided to check it out. And here’s the root of the problem: to oblige means to “make (someone) legally or morally bound to an action or course of action”. Legally or morally bound. Synonyms? “require, compel, bind, constrain, obligate, leave with no option but, force”. Heavy stuff. One moment we’re talking about being pleased and relieved, and it’s only two small steps from there to requirement, compulsion, binding, constraint, obligation, optionlessness, and force. It doesn’t get much more disempowering than that. And, for whatever reason, that’s what gratitude is for me.
I may never be able to have a positive relationship with gratitude. If you do something for me, I may be appreciative, thankful, pleased, and relieved, but I will never, ever be grateful. If asked, “what are you thankful for?”, I may happily relate a long and storied list. But if you ask me, “what are you grateful for?”, I suspect the answer will always be, “nothing, and fuck you for asking”.