"But this is not another essay about how you should be grateful and compassionate. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s an essay about how to be grateful, not gratitude through the spiritual bypass of pretending not to feel what you feel but through occasional humble attention to what is going on around us."
Perspective and Gratitude
by Elizabeth Sullivan
other day I was waiting for my son’s basketball practice to end; I had
driven the carpool. I was trying to entertain my younger kid who was
hungry and crabby at 6pm. I felt strangled, victimized. I was cruelly
poking at myself with barbed assessments of my life, “this sucks! I am
bored! I hate waiting around--I have so many other things I want to
as I sat there fretting, I became aware of a homeless woman sitting
nearby. She was dingy with grime, but also a bit striking or beautiful
in a way. Her face had a kind of smoothness that made it seem like she
had been raised middle class. What was her story? A neatly packed but
obviously street-ready granny cart was parked at her feet. She sat
quietly, observing everything. I saw her face light up with joy when an
18 month old boy toddled by her. When a docent came close she asked
politely when the lecture was to begin. I checked the poster and found
out she was there to attend a free lecture on neuroscience.
felt in that moment just utterly penetrated with this woman’s
existence--her intelligence shining out of her poverty and mental
illness. Here she was, one possible future for me. Not likely, not
really, and yet--it was not impossible either. I felt like I was on a
continuum with her--if a few terrible things happened to me in a certain
lent me some perspective, it helped me. My son’s whiney voice suddenly
seemed not so bad. I pulled him onto my hip and took him to the cafe for
a granola bar. I smoothed and smelled his hair and felt a little shot
of patience run through me. I was lucky to have this life, these kids,
the man at work who would come home later and kiss me and ask, “how was
But this is not another essay about how you should be grateful and compassionate. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s an essay about how to
be grateful, not through the spiritual bypass of pretending not to feel
what you feel but through occasional humble attention to what is going
on around us. Seeing and accepting people in their vulnerability,
yourself included. tuning in to the fragility of life, and to luck.
it is a complex thing to offer, isn’t it? I often meet with clients who
cannot, at first, come into full consciousness of their own suffering
(and thus shift it) because they are too guilty to admit all of what is
troubling them. They feel they have no right even to examine what is
plaguing them. They don’t want to “whine” or complain. They don’t want
to “focus on the negative”.
yet--they are troubled, distracted, there are symptoms and
relationships are suffering enough to bring them to therapy. This
feeling is sometimes labelled “survivor guilt”--the idea that somehow we
shouldn’t thrive, because we owe our lives to those who didn’t make it,
those we left behind (parents, siblings, friends). And it can also
present as generalized politically-related guilt. I have worked with and
known activists who have chaotic personal lives because they believe
that only the cause really deserves their attention.
said, I think it is good, it is instructive, for us to put ourselves in
relation at times to those in extreme poverty and mental illness. When
our lives seem threadbare and brutal and full of strain, it can actually
soften us, to be confronted with those who have lost almost everything.
They are close by, especially in the city.
is difficult--it takes subtlety and wisdom, to acknowledge our inner
suffering, and at the same time, to feel gratitude for what we have:
health, hope, love, family support, creativity. It may be smaller than
that, weirder or quieter: a cat, a book, a pair of boots that have
walked with us out of a bad relationship, an idea, a friend. Or smaller
still—a tiny bit of hope for no good reason.
and adding to our sense of gratitude, while acknowledging what is hard,
what is bothering us and seeking help. I think this might be a working
definition of a healthy person.
visited a friend’s tiny apartment the other day, and noticed a
beautiful altar in her kitchen. When I asked her about it she told me
that she had actually seven altars in her three rooms. Seven! It seemed
like a brilliant response to life, to fill our rooms with little sites
of sacred, holy objects and prayer, asking for help and worshipping
Elizabeth Sullivan helps moms and parent couples learn to self-nurture and thrive. She is a 2012-2013 Fellow at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Center and the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Center at Stanford University. She practices in San Francisco.
Labels: Awareness, Elizabeth Sullivan, gratitude