Thursday, January 14, 2010

Guilt and Gratitude

I was in a relationship once that turned abusive. My fiance at the time, in the midst of a deep depression, started drinking heavily, calling me constantly when I was away from home, jealously interrogating me about friendships with other people, punching walls and throwing dishes when we argued, etc. He shoved me once "by accident" and dislocated my shoulder. I could see where this was going. I had no plans to become a statistic. I got out.

But to get out, I left everything. Everything I owned that wouldn't fit in a helpful friend's car. My books, my clothes, my dishes. My CDs. My TV. An apartment lease that was in my name. My home. My cat. (MY cat. Not his.)

I was in my early twenties. I had just graduated from college. I had no savings. I had no car.

I did have massive student loan debt, crushing medical debt from a near-death experience that my insurance company had decided was not enough of an emergency to warrant emergency surgery, and an underpaying job. And, a few weeks after my well-timed exit, I had a bona fide death threat from the ex, convincing me, firstly, that I'd absolutely done the right thing by leaving, and secondly, that I'd likely never see my material possessions again.

With no family in town in a position to help me, it took me a while to get back on my feet. I stayed with friends for a while, until I overstayed my welcome. I found one temporary sublease, then another. I bummed rides and took buses and sometimes walked several miles to work. One night, unable to get back to a temporary home before my next shift at work, I slept in a friend's car. Or rather, I didn't sleep, but spent the night having seriously uncomfortable flashbacks to a few weeks I once spent homeless as a child.

A few months later, I found myself in a sparsely furnished room, lying on a frameless mattress I had purchased myself, in an apartment that was actually paid for and mine. (With my cat back, and at my feet.) And as I lay on that mattress on the floor in that spartan little room, I felt a flood of gratitude. Overwhelming, profound gratitude of a strength that I had never felt before. Gratitude that I was alive, gratitude that I had a bed to sleep on, gratitude that I had a roof over my head, that next week, that same roof would still be there. And for days, when I would come home from work and find myself in that room in that bed, I felt the same gratitude wash over me in a healing wave. I no longer missed the material things I had left behind. I had what I needed. And that was enough. So much enough that it filled all my empty spaces almost to bursting. I was happier than I could remember, living in gratitude.

But it didn't last. It wore off, that beautiful sense of being grateful for having everything I needed to get by in the world. Before long I was wishing for things I didn't have again. Wanting nicer clothes, wanting nicer food, wanting nicer things again, wanting, wanting. Worrying about money again, complaining about my job again, getting wrapped up again in the petty details of typical American life.

In the years since I have tried often to force myself to recall how I felt, during that brief time of living in gratitude, with limited success. I often get angry at myself for being so seemingly unable to step back and appreciate my own luck at just being alive on Earth, let alone alive and with ample access to food and shelter and medicine and kind companionship and high speed internet and cable television and caffeine. I am painfully aware that there are far too many people in the world who do not have one tenth of what I have. There are people in my own country who do not have a tenth of what I have. But I still so often can't seem to find contentment, let alone gratitude.

I fret over my rusting fence, while in the past year, three houses on my street have gone into foreclosure. I worry about how to pay for my son's medical care and private school, while there are parents on the other side of the globe selling their children into slavery to save their lives because they can't afford to feed them.

What has happened to my gratitude?

Last night, climbing into bed after a day of watching television coverage of the post-earthquake crisis in Haiti, I felt it return. Surrounded in clean sheets, on a soft bed, in a strong house, in a neighborhood that's still standing, with my neighbors alive and well in their homes, I suddenly felt as grateful as I've ever felt for all of it. For my home and my full belly and my slaked thirst and my child sleeping safely in the next room with all his limbs intact. I wanted to kiss my home's standing walls.

And then I found myself trying to reject it. Wanting to feel guilt instead of gratitude. Because this disaster is too, too terrible for me to want to make any sort of selfish, self-centered silver lining out of it. I mean, what a typical privileged American way to react to a crisis, right? A city the size of my own town was completely flattened, and children are dying in the streets, but, hey! I am finally grateful for my own life and home!

I didn't want to feel gratitude in response to someone else's tragedy. To so many someones' tragedies. I had just spent a day seeing terrible pictures, seeing mothers crying next to the bodies of children crushed in their own homes. I didn't want to feel my luck in comparison to them. I wanted to feel some part their pain. As if by feeling some tiny part of it, I could somehow take some of it away.

But as I lay there, fighting unsuccessfully to push away that all-encompassing gratitude I have so often tried to force myself to feel without success, I suddenly realized that our gratitude, the gratitude of the fortunate, the gratitude of the spared, may be exactly what people in Haiti need.

Because we do have what we need here. We do have enough. We do. We in the United States have just spent a year in the worst economic recession in 80 years, and many of us have lost money or jobs or homes. We don't all have what we want right now. We don't even, in many cases, have what we need.

But when we look at what our neighbors in Haiti have just lost -- have lost when they already had so little -- how can we possibly say we are not wealthy?

We have enough, more than enough, and we can share it. And I am grateful that we can share it. I am grateful. And I believe most of my countrypeople are also grateful. Grateful enough to tune out, to drown out, the few selfish, cynical voices telling us not to give.


Farrell said...

beautiful post

{sue} said...

Spot on. And beautifully said.

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Just Vegas said...

Great post. Really, great.

Sheryl said...

You got it-- thanks for writing this.