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Missing pieces: Why you don’t feel grateful

woman's face with red, yellow, white, green and blue puzzle pieces painted on, with a missing piece around her right eye


Today is Thanksgiving Day (in the US). A common tradition is taking a moment during dinner when each person reports one thing for which she is grateful. I don’t like this tradition.

Gratitude cannot be forced. When I was growing up in catholic school, the nuns, priests and lay teachers drilled the guilt of gratitude all day, everyday. We were to be thankful for everything, it seemed: for our fortune (good or bad), our health, our siblings, our parents, our school lunches (this was just plain nonsense – that food was horrible). I struggled with this message. If I dared admit I felt no gratitude for any of those things, I was condemned. The same message was delivered at home. Even society had a whole day dedicated to making me feel guilty about lacking gratitude.

Fast forward 2 decades, the onset of the Internet and Web, and the message is truly everywhere. Positive psychology gurus insist a “gratitude journal” is an essential part of daily happiness. A common social media meme is “3 great things about today” posts. Articles on news sites and blogs praise the supposed magical effects of infusing gratitude into work and life. Refusing to participate in these contrived displays of goodness will earn you a “grumpy” or “self-centered” label.

True gratitude cannot be coerced. It cannot be solicited. Gratitude isn’t delivered through shaming or condemnation. The question isn’t, “How selfish can she be that she shows no gratitude?” The question is, “What piece of her puzzle is missing that keeps her from feeling grateful?”

Missing pieces

Gratitude is the picture that emerges when a puzzle is complete. Being grateful flows naturally from a full heart and a solid spirit. If someone isn’t delivering enough thanks, ask what pieces are missing from her puzzle. Ask why the puzzle isn’t finished and which pieces are missing. Don’t blame or shame. (Children especially don’t deserve that. They, like all of us, are beautiful works-in-progress.) Think first of what is blocking a naturally-occurring emotion that should pour out of a person’s countenance.

Sometimes the missing puzzle pieces of our gratitude picture aren’t within our reach; they must come from other people. Love, respect, compromise, understanding, support, faith – all start out coming from others. Those pieces must be given to us so we can build a full heart and a solid spirit. Many of us didn’t receive all of our pieces as children, and we still don’t get any as adult children. So we move on. We patch up the holes ourselves (sometimes with drugs, gambling, hours spent wasted on the Internet). When we must fill in spaces that should have been filled with pieces handed to us, our gratitude can’t flow.religious painting puzzle with missing piece

Where my thanks flow

I am, actually, quite a thankful person. We have many hearts and many spirits, and my work/Internet life and connections are awesome. My home life is serenely balanced. I treasure friends I’ve made online and in real life. I love my college buddies who still make me laugh, an old grade school friend with whom I can still commiserate, my husband and children’s health, the friends in my town and the ones who still Skype me from half-way around the world. I’m grateful for almost insignificant things, like my yoga teacher (my first – I just started!) and my daily cup of tea. But there are hearts and spirits in me that are not complete and won’t ever be. On Thanksgiving Day, no good comes from our society’s bastardized religious message that we with missing pieces are despicable. We’ve filled them the best we could with new pieces of life to be grateful for.

So today, if you find yourself resenting a family member’s rudeness, or find yourself acting out of guilt, take a breath and think of the pieces that are missing from that puzzle. We can’t see the whole picture. Remember: we are all struggling to fill in the gaps.

Happy Thanksgiving.


Photo Credit: Ashtyn Warner on Flickr
Photo Credit: Romana Klee on Flickr

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rick Wolff 28 November 2013, 11:09 am

    Know what helped me think about gratitude? Counting the number of times people thanked me for doing what I do throughout the year. This year I realized I shoo it away and minimize it, by habit. But it’s starting to pile up for me.
    Also… this goes back to the meaning of silence. One day, silence is the default, and we pattern-seeking people can’t interpret anything from it. The next day, we voice something in common, and now the silence “sounds” like stubbornness. When it could just as easily be obliviousness. Or just enjoyment from the sidelines. Or any of a number of things I can’t think of.

    • PurpleCar 29 November 2013, 10:16 am

      I started a custom column in Twitter’s Tweetdeck for Chrome for those tweets where people say “Thanks” to me. You’re right- it’s important to make sure to absorb those times when people say “thank you.” Maybe I’ll start a Storify, too, just for me, for those days where I feel frustrated. And as you say, silence is golden, in any number of unintended-consequences ways. My mother used to say, “no news is good news” and that’s what I keep in mind when I await responses.

  • Otir 28 November 2013, 8:11 pm

    Thought provoking post as always dear Christine, and so eloquently put. I remember struggling with these ideas more earlier in life than I do now. I have learned, I guess, that the feeling sometimes comes from its expression, rather than the contrary: I mean that sometimes I don’t feel it at all, but pushing myself to looking for something that I am grateful for in a situation ends up elevating my level of exhilaration, even in situations I wish I had not been in in the first place!

    • PurpleCar 29 November 2013, 10:22 am

      I suppose this is a young person’s problem, or, it should be. By the time we’re middle-aged, we should be done with acting out of guilt. The culture still pushes us, though, and I think the positive psychology punch of the “feel gratitude!” message is damaging for everyone. I’d rather work on the basis of the problem, if possible. That’s the main grudge I have with positive psychology – it helps people avoid the confrontation of the core disruption. That being said, I’m glad that you find a way to use gratitude for your comfort. Perhaps it is the only action available for us to use when a situation is out of our control.

  • Marie-Aude Koiransky 29 November 2013, 4:10 am

    There is a lot of truth in what you write, and specially that you cannot force gratitude. But what about slightly changing the words ? Not “gratitude” but “acknowledging good things and things that could definitively be worse” ? Not “forcing” but “teaching oneself” ?

    My point here is that a lot of people – including myself – have a strong tendancy to look at what could be better, to feel and explore their gaps, and to forget the positive aspects. I remember Otir making lists on her blog of the things she wanted to say thank you for, and I thought it was great.

    Because this forces us to have a positive looks on our fills and gaps, and concentrate, for a while, on the fills.

    But you are 100% right when you say that should not be forced, and one who does not feel “grateful” should not be blamed.

    • PurpleCar 29 November 2013, 10:30 am

      Marie-Aude, I hear you. I understand how nuances can change a person’s world view. Such efforts can lead to dangerous avoidance, though. What you say about owning the process is true. You can reject the cultural norms and create your own methods. Otir (comment below) seems to use gratitude to her advantage. Otir is past the stage I write about, though. She’s moved past being constrained by rules and is in a place where she can search out the silver linings. My point is that I see so many people going through the family motions not out of true desire to be with their siblings, parents, inlaws, cousins, et al, but out of some overwhelming cultural expectation that we pretend we love the tradition. I see no point to this, and I find it helpful to give people a voice, to say things they can’t yet. While negativity and positivity can be habits (which perhaps I’ll write about in another post), I’m not talking here about a world view as much as I’m writing about those overwhelming and useless cultural expectations. I’d love to hear what you think about this. Opinons?

      • Marie-Aude Koiransky 29 November 2013, 11:27 am

        On that specific point, I totally agree with you. Actually I also went to this very same kind of catholic school. I had the luck that my parents did not fully adhere to this kind of brainwashing, so I was not so much affected as some of my friends.

        Through the years, I get rid of many obligations, I decided I liked some members of my famly because of their personnality, not because of blood links, and I did not consider I had to be in a close relationship with the others, and so on. I’m very grateful ( ^^ ) that I I went through experiences that gave me this freedom, even if some of them where quite hard.

        Nevertheless, not being american, I missed the “Thanksgiving flair” of your post, and how much this nationwide forced gratitude would break my ow nerves. I somehow relate that to this “Xmas spirit” I hate quite for the same reasons. Therefore my somehow general answer, which was not really pertinent, I see that now.

        In a word, as much as I feel gratitude is good, in itself, as much I hate and reject any forced great community display of feelings on a specific calendar day !

        • PurpleCar 29 November 2013, 4:37 pm

          Yes. Thanks for responding. I agree with you that these types of obligations are learned and somehow unlearned as we grow older and have the confidence to speak (or act) our minds. And great point about Christmas. I think the “spirit” of that holiday is really what causes a lot of depression. I could go on about religious holidays here but honestly, any holiday comes with a certain perspective all are supposed to adopt.

          My mother, unfortunately, was a huge adherent of the forced gratitude. And if you knew my mother, you would understand why I believe there are class issues underlying this sentiment. My mother, and in turn me, grew up quite poor. As I’ve met diverse people throughout my life, I noticed that I never hear wealthy people say crap like this. It’s always the most impoverished who strive to find the good in everything. It’s a necessary survival skill, but clinging to the theory just keeps one’s mindset in a lower socioeconomic situation.