By Jamie Khoo
There have been moments recently when I’ve found myself sitting in a traffic jam at 8:00 in the morning: there’s an asshole who’s suddenly trying to wedge into my lane; the traffic policemen are idling on the pavement instead of doing anything to alleviate the traffic; a motorcyclist has just squeezed his way too close to my car and bashed into my side mirror.
And all I can think—like a wave of feeling whizzing up through my stomach—is how grateful I am to just be here: on my way to a job a love, with people whom I adore, in the thumping, glittering hub of the city.
I’ve been thinking about gratitude again lately, with The Tattooed Buddha’s #ReAwakenGratitude challenge—mostly, my recent feelings of thankfulness and the more general sense of what gratitude should, and shouldn’t, feel like.
It wasn’t so long ago that I lived in a space where I was told constantly that I should be grateful.
Things would be given to me or done for me which I didn’t necessarily want; I would be repeatedly reminded to feel grateful to whoever was giving me these things and told what gratitude should translate into or look like.
So I willed myself to feel thankful. If I couldn’t feel it, I would create lists of all the things and favours I’d received, tell myself just how much I valued those things, and try to picture an unpleasant version of my life without those things. It didn’t matter that none of this was actually what I wanted in the first place. I also made myself believe that this was what I wanted.
I was being told to be grateful so that’s what I would feel.
In the end, this “gratitude” didn’t feel like anything in particular. There was none of that expansiveness, or joy, or relief, or peace that I identify in those spontaneous moments of gratitude I experience now, almost every hour of every day.
It wasn’t until many years later, after I’d left that situation far behind me, that I began to realise that the “gratitude” I was feeling was actually obligation, accompanied closely by guilt, shame and fear.
I rediscovered gratitude all on my own, without anyone telling me what to feel. I found it, reawakened, in sudden, unbidden moments—feeling the sunlight on my face, in the middle of a silly joke with an old friend, while dancing, and yes, even on a blocked road on the way to work.
Here’s the biggest lesson learnt: gratitude isn’t felt by someone telling you to feel it.
That’s as silly as someone demanding that you be happy, or sad. You can’t turn on feelings like a switch. If someone is telling you to be grateful, it’s time to check in with what else is going on there—a form of control? Shaming? Guilt? Manipulation?
True gratitude arises spontaneously—a pop that bubbles over and fills us up. It is also lightness—it buoys us, it’s energizing and peaceful and makes us understand, appreciate and love the fact that we are exactly where we need to be.
It’s not heavy and hard and weighty, like obligation, shame, guilt, suppression, and manipulation.
I also understand now that no one should ever really expect anyone else to be grateful to them. If we give or love or help another with a true intention, then shouldn’t we be giving, loving and helping without any expectation of return?
To expect gratitude is to expect a return.
We see this all the time though—parents telling their children, partners and spouses telling each other, teachers telling students, bosses telling employees that they “should be grateful for all that has been done for you.”
The thing is, we can’t tell someone what to feel or how to feel it. They just do, or they don’t.
The paradox is, the more we ask for something like gratitude, the more difficult we make it for the other person to feel it truly and naturally. What arises instead, it not gratitude or loyalty, but a feeling of being beholden; any expression of “gratitude” is the fancy repayment of a debt — and that’s a very different thing.
The converse of this paradox also holds true, as I’ve recently rediscovered.
When there is none of that pressure to feel indebted, gratitude is more readily and easily felt.
Think, for example, of that one teacher you might have had during school who taught with nothing but passion and the sincere wish that the straggling, maddening bunch of students before him would go into the world and be their best selves.
That was my math teacher, and though I never went on to pursue a career in anything math related, I still feel a swell in my heart whenever I think of the unending passion for learning and education he passed to us. I am beyond grateful to have studied with him, not least for the fact that I know he never expected anything from us but to excel and fall in love with what we learned.
It is the same of people we work with, our animals, our lovers, our family, a cup of coffee, a shared moment with a friend, a moving book, a single flower — every damn thing that is out there to remind us of who we really are, what we really want in life and where we need to be.
All of those things that make us feel that jolt of thankful joy, of peace, of an expansive, unending happy fest in our hearts — they inspire gratitude in us because they bring us closer and closer to our best selves and our truest, purest potential.
So it isn’t about creating, faking or enforcing gratitude. It really is about reawakening: all the feels we get from true gratitude are so absolutely good because they align with the qualities, values, joy and love we hold dear, and which make us who we already deeply are.
Jamie Khoo has loved writing and words from the moment she started to read. After getting her MA in English, she went on to pursue a career in writing and has had her work published in magazines such as Elle Malaysia and Time Out Kuala Lumpur, and websites such as elephant journal. Sick of being told by mass media and society what we should think of as “beautiful” or not, she founded the website a beauty full mind to challenge normalised beauty ideals and create new definitions and conversations about what beauty can mean for all of us today. Say hello to her on Facebook or drop her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak