By Annabeth Leong
While I acknowledge the importance and value of gratitude as a way of putting small problems in perspective, I feel deeply suspicious of gratitude as a way of life, and even more suspicious of gratitude as it’s often played in pop culture self help movements.
People talk a lot about entitlement and expectations, as if these things are completely terrible and should be eradicated from our psyches. (Sample quote, from life coach Adam Smith: “Entitlement is such a cancer, because it is void of gratitude.” Or the popular saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”)
Both of these sentiments can serve as important correctives for a person who has lost perspective. For example, if a student expects and feels entitled to attend Harvard University on a full scholarship, and isn’t capable of accepting any other outcome or acknowledging that lots of other students exist who are also intelligent and talented, it might be time to pull out these sorts of quotes. It might be time to remind the student to be grateful for the opportunities that are available.
On the other hand, I get worried by what I refer to as “be grateful you have feet” syndrome. In self help settings, I’ve observed exhanges where, say, someone talks about their painful plantar fasciitis and how much it is bothering them and how they’re frightened they might need surgery on their feet. In return, someone else points out that not everyone has feet or the means to have surgery on them. And yeah, sure, it’s an even worse scenario if you don’t have access to your needed foot surgery, but I’m super frustrated by this approach as a way of shutting down someone’s honest and valid communication about their feelings of fear and pain. I’m not here for enforced gratitude, in which any negative feeling is criticized and countered with demands for gratitude.
What’s at the bottom of it for me is that expectations and entitlement can also be healthy. They can be an important part of standing up for myself, of asserting my worth as a human being. They can be the source of needed protection.
For example, part of what I see in the Black Lives Matter movement is black people asserting their own value and humanity (indeed, this is a major element of the message in the name of the movement). I see people saying that they’re entitled to better treatment from society at large. They’re entitled to receiving the benefit of the doubt from police in the same way that’s given to white people. I notice how often I’m hearing about black people pulled over for a broken tail light and ultimately killed. Then I notice other stories about white people who actually kill people and stay armed, but are eventually taken alive by compassionate, careful police work. I see that police are capable of that compassion and care, and I think everyone is entitled to receiving it, even if they’re under suspicion of a crime.
So the point here is that I think it’s healthy and important for black advocates to stand up for their worth this way. A sense of entitlement is a key part of that, and it’s good. Human beings should be entitled to live their lives without being constantly under suspicion due to the color of their skin. They should be entitled to survive traffic stops, and many more normal, everyday situations.
And all too often, I see activists getting told to be grateful for the progress that’s already been made in society. There’s a degrading message there, that you ought to be grateful for any scraps thrown to you, that you ought not to value yourself so highly as to think you’re fully equal to everyone else.
That’s a larger political example, and an important one. Then I have a lot of personal examples about ways that the pressure to feel gratitude has sometimes worked out to demands that I lower my sense of self worth. I’m going to give a few, ranging from minor to toxic.
— I thank my male partner profusely for “helping” me with the housework, when he’s done some relatively small thing, like wash a few pots. The gratitude I’m expressing here is concealing a few troubling assumptions: that the housework is my job more than his, though that’s not the agreement our relationship is founded on; that this relatively small contribution is worthy of effusive gratitude, while my much larger contribution goes unnoticed or unappreciated. I’ve also observed that being overly grateful toward male partners in this situation seems to contribute toward misunderstandings about the magnitude of household tasks. The partner in question may respond to my gratitude by feeling he’s done plenty, when that may not be an honest assessment from my perspective.
— I am so grateful to a publisher for recognizing my work and choosing to put it out into the world that I don’t advocate for myself, my work, and my career successfully. I sign poor contracts. I wait for long periods for any response for them, and then put up with sudden demands on my time when they get around to paying attention to me. I turn a blind eye to substandard service, such as poor copy editing or clearly unprofessional communications from the powers that be. I put up with delays in payments and errors in royalty statements, and I write gentle, carefully worded statements asking for the money that’s owed to me. After all, shouldn’t I be grateful that I’m allowed to pursue my creative dreams? Shouldn’t I be glad someone is reading my work and appreciating it? Wouldn’t it be selfish of me to want better for myself or my writing? What good does it do to think my work deserves more readers or better treatment? I should focus on being grateful for what I have.
— I am grateful to the first company to hire me out of graduate school. After all, they saved my ass by giving me a job in the city I was already living in, at a time when I really needed money. In exchange, I let them own me body and soul for the next several years. No demand is too large or small. I work myself into sickness for them. I put up with being passed over for promotion, with not receiving raises, even though other colleagues in similar positions get both. Every time I feel like I ought to find something better for myself, I question the emotions that lead me to that conclusion. Why am I angry and unsatisfied? I ought to be grateful.
— I run away from home as a teenager and live for a while with an older man who takes advantage of me in a variety of ways. I should be grateful, according to him, for the ways he takes care of me. After all, he feeds me, drives me to where I need to go, gives me a place to live. He also starves me when he’s not happy with what I’m doing, coerces me into sexual situations I wouldn’t choose for myself, and expects me to turn over any money I make at work. He tries to stop me from using birth control, and is constantly hiding my pills, trying to prevent me from getting to the pharmacy to pick them up, or putting me in situations where I won’t have enough money to pay for the prescription. I should be grateful, though, because living with him allows me to escape a different abusive situation with my mother’s boyfriend. I should be grateful because he loves me. I should be grateful because he doesn’t judge me for being a slut.
I know that for some people, gratitude is comforting. “At least I have someone to call to drive me away from horrible, abusive boyfriend’s house. At least there’s that.” If it does that for you, then that’s great.
At the same time, gratitude has many times left me unable to demand better for myself, even in situations where I really needed to. I think, as with all things, that there’s a time and a place for gratitude, and it isn’t everywhere. I wish the psychologically corrosive effects of trying to summon gratitude in the face of pain and damage were more widely acknowledged.
Some people may be too entitled, and others may not be entitled enough. There are times when a person should say, “I deserve better.” There are times when you’ve been served slop on the floor while other people are eating foie gras at the table, and instead of being grateful for what you get, it’s right and important to get angry about it and expect better.