Gratitude Isn’t Just Some Soft, Snowflake Bullshit

Photo by hurricanemaine

After hugging me, Kelly* held out an envelope with a stamp depicting the cherry blossom trees we hadn’t been able to visit.

“You seem bothered,” she said.

“I thought that was everything there is to say,” I said, once again admiring her ability to read my emotions. “Should I open it now?”

“No, when it feels right.”

Back in my car felt right. We’d dated in person for just two weeks and hadn’t had sex. Whatever was in the envelope couldn’t be too intense.

Odds were, it would make me smile. We’d met at a psychotherapy conference just before the pandemic began, and Kelly had made me laugh between conversations about grief and childhood trauma. She’d sent texts, emails, and even letters while I quarantined on my parents’ rural farm before moving back to Washington, D.C. Almost all of them had made me smile.

But in person again I hadn’t wanted to kiss her as much as I’d expected. We’d talk into the night about psychology, Black Lives Matter, and her job as a comedian. When we’d make out, I didn’t feel the sexual chemistry fundamental to a romantic relationship.

I’d decided we’d be better as friends. And after a few of the intense conversations you’d expect between a writer and comedian both obsessed with psychology, Kelly had agreed.

“In the spirit of ending on a high note and to do justice to this weird and remarkable romance we had, here are 25 things I’m grateful for,” read the card inside the envelope.

“I’m super grateful to you for … Inspiring me to finally get a banjo. Helping me reconsider protest as a social change tool. Provoking big feeling states of calm and insecurity. Inviting a deep dive into Pema Chödrön’s wisdom. Reminding me it’s okay to be low energy. Being the best pandemic distraction ever…”

I smiled — but not just because Kelly was reminding me of memories I’d forgotten. She was also winking about something we’d debated: Is gratitude just flowery, hipster bullshit?

She’d argued that gratitude was a genuine, even creative emotion. I’d rolled my eyes at the sentimentality. “People say they’re grateful just to seem like a good person,” I’d said. “Or because they’re guilty about their privilege.”

My father comes from working class West Virginia, with German Protestant ancestors who were sent to the American colonies as indentured servants. My mother, from a long line of self-sufficient family farmers. They didn’t teach me how to express my emotions, especially gratitude. I learned that whatever good comes my way was earned through hard work and frugality. Saying “thank you” is just what you’re supposed to do.

After college, I played guitar and sang in D.C.’s indie rock music scene. Emotions were only allowed in lyrics. Offstage, I felt I had to be aloof and mysterious. The more obscure and thankless my band seemed, the more interest we attracted.

But Kelly’s card was pure gratitude. It had no sense of obligation. No defensiveness or trying to get me back. She’d clearly written it for herself, regardless of how it landed with me. Then she had gifted it, no strings attached.

Her nod to Pema Chödrön, the Buddhist nun and author, reminded me that I had felt something like gratitude before. In one of my favorite books, “Start Where You Are,” Chödrön explains a meditation practice called tonglen, Tibetan for “giving and taking.” I’d practiced it off and on over the years and experienced moments of what Chödrön calls an “awakened heart.”

Tonglen practice is both a practice of making friends with yourself and a practice of compassion,” she writes. But I hadn’t been able to grasp exactly what I was feeling. Warm and positive, sure — but was it compassion?

Inspired by Kelly’s gift, I began practicing tonglen each morning. I imagined someone who was suffering and breathed in their pain as dark, polluted air. Then I imagined breathing cool, healing air towards them. I thought of friends who’d lost jobs and a neighbor whose dog had been diagnosed with lymphoma.

Most mornings I rolled my eyes and moved on to breakfast. But one morning, my mother texted that my grand aunt had fallen and broken her wrist. I imagined Marian, in her 80s, alone and in pain during a pandemic. I breathed in her fear and loneliness. I breathed out the feeling of being cared for by others.

And there it was — gratitude. Appreciation that my body was in good shape. That I wasn’t cooped up alone and hurting. That, despite social distancing, I could FaceTime friends. For a few seconds, I was in awe of being alive. Aware that it all could be gone tomorrow. But not in an intellectual way. Not a, “I should feel grateful because there are starving kids in Africa,” sort of thing. In my bones. In my awakened heart.

I continued practicing tonglen, most mornings feeling annoyed, occasionally feeling appreciative. I went on masked walks with strangers I’d met on dating apps. All of them temporary pandemic distractions. Definitely not the best ever. Then Kelly’s ultimate gift dropped in my lap.

I met someone who both made me smile and I wanted to kiss over and over again. I wanted to be with her all of the time. Especially as winter brought a second wave of shutdowns and less opportunity to be outside with friends.

I was, in a word, desperate. Every text message of hers felt like a referendum on our budding love. A short response meant she was losing interest. A selfie with a heart emoji meant she was obsessed with me.

“Woke up thinking about you, per usual. And still am,” she texted one winter morning. For a few seconds, I forgot the frigid air in my living room. Warmth pumped through my chest. My shoulders and necked softened.

I waited a few minutes and typed, “Good morning!” But then I remembered something Kelly had said before she handed me the envelope. She’d been wondering if I had what psychologists call an “insecure attachment style.” There were times, she’d said, I’d pulled back after showing interest. Times when it seemed like I’d been deliberately sending mixed signals. “Maybe you should really look at that,” she’d said.

I’d chalked her suggestion up to her being hurt. She was defending her heart, maybe even trying to hurt me a little. Yet here I was playing a game with my new lover. Someone I was ecstatic about. I was holding back that the text made me happy. Why?

I deleted the characters in the unsent text and Googled “insecure attachment style.” Neediness and anxiety in romantic relationships are relatively common, psychologists say. One of the tell-tale signs is playing hard-to-get.

“If you’re secure about yourself and about others loving you, you’re less likely to get involved in such game-playing,” said one psychologist who had studied insecure attachment.

I typed a new response in my phone: “Ditto. I can’t stop thinking about you. I’m obsessed!” My shoulders tensed as the text floated into the air. But underneath the tightness, it felt satisfying to be so honest. It felt right.

“So happy that you feel the same,” she sent back, with a heart emoji.

What gratitude points to doesn’t have to be earned. It’s what I was gifted when I woke up this morning. It’s another day, a full carton of eggs in the refrigerator, the start of spring, a heart emoji in a text message.

Kelly showed me that it’s courageous — not pretentious — to admit appreciating such things. To live as though “this is it,” rather than “this is it?”

She showed me that there’s value in expressing appreciation, even while heartbroken. That doing so isn’t necessarily about appearing a certain way to other people. That gratitude actually serves the person who feels it. And our heartbreak spotlighted an unconscious pattern of mine that has undermined past relationships.

This new relationship is way more than a pandemic distraction. Way more. But it’s still relatively new. Is this it? I sure feel like it is, so I’m not going to hold back.

(*Named changed for privacy)

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and about politics here.

Download my free ebook on how mindfulness can decrease your anxiety and transform your life.

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Jeremy Mohler

Jeremy Mohler

Writer, therapist, and meditation teacher. Get my writing about navigating anxiety, burnout, relationship issues, and more: jeremymohler.blog/signup