Our Instinct to Survive
We humans are born with an instinct to survive. When our lives are threatened, we get anxious and fight back or seek assistance. That’s because we perceive ourselves to be separate individuals. Many of us understand ourselves to be unique and valuable, as well. Even if we believe in a life after death, we tend to want to preserve our individual, unique, and valuable self.
A number of religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Pantheism, teach that this belief in an individual self is an illusion. If so, it is an illusion that has a purpose. It keeps us going in the face of hardship and threat.
Sometimes, though, this illusion of separateness, along with the fear of loss that accompanies it, does not serve us well. Our desire to succeed, to leave a legacy, to feel safe, to protect our loved ones, can sometimes cause us to lie, cheat, and bully. Money and power make us feel secure, and some people will do anything to accumulate wealth and acquire positions of authority. To make things worse, this sense of separateness can lead us to think of others as different from, and less valuable than, ourselves, making it easy to blame and scapegoat them. It’s not easy to make the ethical choice when faced with loss, so our illusion of separateness can make us cruel.
It can also make us grateful.
Separateness and Gratitude
I first realized this when, at a recovery church meeting where we were exploring the illusion we live within, a member asked if it were possible, or even useful, to feel gratitude when that which we are grateful for doesn’t actually exist apart from us.
Perhaps not. If we allow ourselves to enter into that consciousness where oneness is the essence of all creation, if we slip into that expansiveness in which I and thou cease to exist, time also ceases to exist. Without time, we cannot act, think, or enter into relationship, not even with ourselves, for relationship requires a give and take, a noticing and a responding. If we could spend more than an instant in that place of truth that is the essential nature of the universe, all emotions would fall away, including gratitude. We might experience bliss or peace, but we wouldn’t label it as such, for words, along with relationships and emotions, would cease to have meaning.
But because we can’t stay in that mystical oneness for long, time always returns. We move and breathe and experience light and darkness with bodies that have edges and boundaries and minds unique to ourselves. So we return, also, to relationship. Whether with people, animals, the land, God, we interact, share, bond. Experiencing others as outside our selves, we respond to them emotionally. We feel tenderness and resentment, anger and embarrassment, happiness and love, betrayal and gratitude. Without someone or something to interact with, however, we would have nothing to be grateful for.
Or so I imagine. Not having entered into that unmoving silence for long enough to be sure, I can’t be certain, but it makes sense that gratitude would not exist there any more than does hatred or blame.
In the normal world I navigate, however, gratitude is not only possible, but makes sense. To understand how, let’s first look at what gratitude is.
Researchers Randy A. Sansone and Lori A. Sansone, in their article about gratitude and well-being, tell us that, along with being an emotion, gratitude can be thought of as a virtue, a habit, a personality trait, a way of coping, and an attitude toward life. We can feel grateful when we are given a gift, or when something goes right in our lives. This is “state” gratitude, a sensibility dependent on the state of our lives. However, we can also feel grateful simply because we exist. Some people approach the world with gratitude, no matter what is going on in their lives. This is “trait” gratitude. Most people, at one time or another, have experienced both these ways of feeling grateful. 
In their study of gratitude and wisdom, Susanne König and Judith Glück explain that with time, we may gain perspective, take things less personally, and be better able to let go of preconceptions and rigid expectations. This is wisdom. Like those who are grateful, wise people realize that good things come even out of terrible events, that we have less control over life than we like to think, and that relationships with others are more important than we might think.” Out of this wisdom, gratitude appears to arise naturally. 
Unless we take time to reflect our lives and come to terms with our negative experiences, however, we won’t develop wisdom no matter how long we live. When this is the case, we aren’t likely to develop gratitude, either, for gratitude and wisdom seem to go together.
The Gifts of Gratitude
If gratitude has some connection to our capacity to know ourselves and to understand how the world has shaped us, perhaps, then, gratitude helps us heal. Last week, when we talked about healing, we saw that without inner reflection and growth, we might make small fixes in our lives, but we probably wouldn’t heal. If what König and Glück say is true, that the traits needed to heal our hearts and spirits are the same as those needed for wisdom and gratitude, then healing is intimately connected with our capacity to be grateful.
This may be why the practice of gratitude soothes our hearts. When we express gratitude for gifts we have received, whether for the warm sunshine, the rain that gives us life, a present left on our doorstep, or for the farmers, millers, and delivery drivers who make it possible for us to have bread, we feel better. Much research has been done on the effects of gratitude, and it seems clear that, for most people in most situations, being grateful makes us healthier and happier. 
This is not universally true, however. Very little is true without exception or nuance, and gratitude can have its drawbacks.
Problems with Gratitude
For instance, some researchers worry that if we’re grieving or reeling from trauma or other hardship, gratitude can cause us to minimize our sadness, anger, or anxiety. Instead of entering into our pain, we might deny it. This is mainly a problem when we introduce gratitude into our healing too soon. If we allow ourselves to grieve well, to process our trauma, gratitude tends to arise with time. We might never feel grateful for the terrible event, but we often feel grateful for what we have learned, for the people who helped us, for the chance to have loved, for a life that goes on. The problem seems to be less with gratitude itself as with our artificial attempts to create it in our hearts.
This was seen by the researchers Sara B. Algoe and Ruixue Zhaoyang in their study of couples. They wanted to find out if the intentional practice of gratitude would enhance the relationships. While they discovered some positive effects from partners sharing what they were grateful for, those effects developed only when the expression seemed genuine. If it seemed artificial, it did not help and sometimes made things worse. 
Additionally, gratitude can inhibit our motivation to heal, grow, and move on. A study of addicts who endorsed a desire to be sober indicates that gratitude supports recovery only when one is already abstinent. If we feel grateful for the life we have, and that life happens to include drinking, why stop? After all, if life is good, why change? 
This may be true anytime we want to make a lifestyle change. Whether we want to exercise more, improve our diet, or get out of a bad relationship, a practice of gratitude might be counterproductive.
So we don’t want to force gratitude into our lives, and we might want to be careful if we need to get out of a bad situation, but in general, gratitude enhances our well-being and life satisfaction. Therefore, we ought to embrace it.
If we really are all one, however, then perhaps gratitude, along with the wisdom and healing that seem to be connected with it, is an illusion. In oneness, relationship ceases to exist, as does action, emotion, reflection, and understanding. In oneness, there is no growth. Perhaps that is why we need to live as if we were separate beings, so we can learn, grow, and become. At least, in separateness, we have that opportunity.
That’s why I appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s conception of interbeing. In an article he wrote about it, he pointed out that we are not independent creatures. We depend on others for our existence, for our essential nature, for our successes and failures, our possibilities and disappointments. Hanh points to our ancestors who live within us, noting that we, too, live within our children. We are influenced by teachers, by society, by the good and bad that happen to us.
Yet we are not trapped by our nature. Life is impermanent. Everything changes all the time. That means we, too, change, and we have some power to dictate the nature of that change. As Hanh writes, we can “transform our inheritance in a beautiful direction.” 
We are given what we are given, and we get to do our best with what we have. Fortunately, our existence in bodies that live in time, along with the reality of impermanence, make this possible. For that, we can be grateful.
Gratitude Is Natural
We exist in an interdependent web. Not only do our parents live within us, but so do the exploding stars that created the chemicals that bonded together to form the matter of our planet and all that lives on it. Within us, cells and bacteria swarm, keeping us alive. Food, water, and sun give us the strength to work. Someone built the roads we walk on, planted trees so that we might breathe, gave us hope to carry on, forged metal and harvested wood so that we might have homes and tools and wheelchairs. This is interbeing.
Interbeing acknowledges the oneness of everything, but sees also that our bodies exist in a material universe. They have distinct edges. We are one, and we are not one.
If we understand this, how can we not be grateful? We did not build our lives by ourselves. Even if our lives are filled with disaster, knowing that separateness is an illusion helps us realize we are not fully responsible for those disasters, either. Is this release from shame and blame not something to be grateful for, as well?
We have been given the illusion of life. Who knows why? Oneness might be the essential nature of everything, but as long as we breathe, we exist as separate beings. We are one, and we are not one; we are individual, and we are not individual. That is the interbeing.
When we understand this, we cannot help but feel an immense awe, a deep humility. Out of that, comes a compassionate wisdom. Then, every experience becomes a blessing in its own way. We start to notice gifts everywhere. When we see life in this way, gratitude becomes natural.
In faith and fondness,
- Sansone, Randy A. and Lori A. Sansone, “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry (Edgmont), Nov 2010, 7 (11): 18-20, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/, accessed 11/16/20.
- König, Susanne and Judith Glück, “’Gratitude is With Me All the Time’: How Gratitude Relates to Wisdom,” J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci, Sep 2014; 69(5): 655-666, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4141499/, accessed 11/15/20.
- Sansone and Sansone.
- Algoe, Sara B. and Ruixue Zhaoyang, “Positive Psychology in Context: Effects of Expressing Gratitude in Ongoing Relationships Depend on Perceptions of Enactor Responsiveness,” J Posit Psychol, 2016; 11(4): 399-415, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5085264/, accessed 11/15/20. See also Leong, Joyce L. T., et al, “Is Gratitude Always Beneficial to Interpersonal Relationships? The Interplay of Grateful Dispositions, Grateful Moods, and Grateful Expressions Among Married Couples,” Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 2020 Jan; 46(1):64-78, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31046594/, Epub 2019 May 3, accessed 11/21/20.
- Krentzman, Amy R., “Gratitude, Abstinence, and Alcohol Use Disorders: Report of a Preliminary Finding,” J Subst Abuse Treat, 2017 Jul; 78: 30-36, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5501091/, accessed 11/15/20.
- “Self-Made Man,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-made_man, accessed 11/19/20.
- Douglass, Frederick, “Self-Made Man,” The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Librayr of Congress: Speech, Article, and Book file, Monadnock, 1872.
- Hanh, Thich Nhat, “The Insight of Interbeing,” Garrison Institute, August 2, 2017, https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/blog/insight-of-interbeing/, accessed 11/19/22.
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