I suppose it’s natural that right now – in the midst of my “30 days, 30 acts of (expansive, unabashed, downright mushy) gratitude” challenge – I’d be interested in exploring gratitude from every possible angle. I’m like that. During my year of fearless love, it seemed that every conversation I had, every article and book I read led me back to the subject of love. By the end of 2011, I believed (and still do) that love lies at the heart of every meaningful thing we do in this world.
So, given my total preoccupation, you can imagine my nerdy excitement when Brene Brown dedicated quite a bit of space in her new book Daring Greatly to the psychological links between vulnerability, gratitude, and joy.
As it turns out, we humans, in our attempts to be invincible, have many armors we wear to shield ourselves from vulnerability because, let’s face it, vulnerability is at best extremely uncomfortable, and at worst terrifying. One of the ways we protect ourselves, according to Brown, is to lace our joy with a deep sense of foreboding, a nagging, underlying notion that this is just too amazing to last.
For example, we might fall in love with someone that makes us feel heard and valuable and gorgeous and tingly, and instead of throwing ourselves headlong into the happiness of feeling all those things, we start (consciously or unconsciously) preparing ourselves for the ending. We may love madly but, in the pauses, we imagine our new love losing interest in us, leaving us for someone else, even dying.
We imagine the worst thing that can happen and in imagining that thing, we believe we are protected from the emotional devastation of being blindsided.
In other words, we hedge our bets, tempering our joy in the hopes that our potential heartbreak won’t hurt as much. We dull our present happiness intentionally because along with the wonderful, we see an unavoidable truth: this could all slip away in an instant.
I think most of us – maybe all of us – have done this. I did it big time right after my first son, Dillon, was born. I hadn’t intended to get pregnant, hadn’t even decided how I felt about having children… at all… ever. When my pregnancy was confirmed (four times), I panicked. I cried. I cursed my body for betraying me. I considered terminating the pregnancy every minute of every day and during every sleepless night.
Until I didn’t.
By the time I gave birth, I’d fallen in love with the boy I was carrying, but I was wracked with guilt and a terrible certainty that I would be punished for my initial reaction. For at least the first year of my son’s life, every single moment of parental joy was laced with foreboding. I imagined a million terrible scenarios, all the ways there are to lose a child.
Eventually I let go of my guilt, realizing that I had to if I ever hoped to have a healthy relationship with my son. But that instinct to hold back, to not surrender completely to our joy exists for all of us. So I read with enormous interest when Brene Brown wrote about the superpower of gratitude. <– Those are my words. Here are hers:
Even those of us who have learned to lean into joy and embrace our experiences are not immune to the uncomfortable quake of vulnerability that often accompanies joyful moments. We’ve just learned how to use it as a reminder rather than a warning shot… For those welcoming the experience, the shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us.
Gratitude, therefore, emerged from the data as the antidote to foreboding joy… Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy… If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough and that we’re enough.
I love that – a real-world, boots-on-the-ground, practical application of gratitude. Instead of thinking, “This is too perfect; I’m too happy, too blessed,” think, “I’m so out-of-this-world grateful for this moment.”
In any given moment, your good fortune – the great news, the electrifying turn of events, the forces of love that every day find their unwavering way to you – are an invitation, not a warning, a reminder that this is your one and only life; the worse thing you can do is hedge your bets and live it halfway.