The Antonym of Gratitude is Oblivion
There are aspects of asking and receiving that I grapple with to the point where it feels worse than the myriad shifting physical pains I live with daily. In many ways, I would rather go it alone and struggle harder keeping my challenges invisible, than tolerate and endure the nearly unbearable pain of asking for or receiving help. Specifically, it isn’t the receiving of help as much as it is the act of making peace with someone seeing me, valuing me, then making choices to give something of themselves up to allow me to have access to it. It makes little difference to me whether they have this resource, be it time, money or other, in excess and that they feel comfortable in sparing it. However, this sometimes assuages my guilt a little, if ‘guilt’ is the right descriptor for the discomfort. My gratitude overwhelms me until I am almost suffocating on it. I fall a little in love with every person who shows kindness and generosity. It is the one space where I love easily.
Distinctly, it is not the act of asking itself that I struggle with as much as it is the requisite act of positioning myself to be a recipient. One kind and courageous friend revealed that her own struggle with asking linked to criticisms that echoed large in her own mind, since an abusive childhood. She asked me if I felt too ashamed to need help and I clarified that it was not feelings of inadequacies or shame I grappled with. I face the feeling that I am not allowed to receive. My childhood was replete with examples of my utility and my right to exist in servitude. Whether it was overt as the punching bag for the overwrought rage of others, or whether it was to massage and soothe delicate egos and distresses of those who did not manage their own emotions, I earned my survival and place in the world in these ways. Regardless of my exhaustion or pain, my function was of service, sometimes a literal servant at family events to ensure that “We” painted the appropriate picture. This extended on to my conceptions of intimate relationships, time and time again.
In time, I have learned to modify my distress and inability to receive with reframing. I permit myself the request of company. The truth of it is that I know that when I share company, I can at least reciprocate heartfelt listening and careful considered attention to people too. In sharing company, I see others and I have learned that this is sadly too rare an experience for many. To be seen for ourselves, and what we are experiencing, is validating and confirming, and a necessary part of becoming. I worry about how many of our global citizens are facing a denial of this experience as more of us live obscured and isolated days in pandemic conditions. Not all of us know other ways to be seen than through face-to-face interactions and I wonder what the consequences will be.
I also learned the art of gratitude. I would not suggest that I am expert nor proficient at it, but I learned of the grace and impact of gratitude. In showing appreciation, we not only acknowledge the act for which we are grateful, but also the giver and their part in our lives. They may pass briefly through, or they may yet evolve to feature more strongly in our futures, or hold deep abiding anchors in shared histories with us.
I have been deliberately fostering in myself the practice of appreciation for many years. It is laughably (possibly appallingly) easy to focus on and communicate about the negatives. We are effectively biologically rewarded for this as it ensures our collective survival. However, when an individual or a group does well, it often feels like more work and deliberation to extend words of acknowledgement. In the marketing world, it is often said that people must absolutely love a service or product to say so but can have experienced a very small inconvenience to propagate negative messaging about the brand.
I have been trying to cultivate my own quiet practice of thanking and celebrating good work and kindness. I left occasional handwritten notes on colleague’s desks thanking them for their part in a project but especially for any efforts beyond their technical job purview. I googled to find the names of managers to highlight details of a positive experience with staff under their supervision. When other CEOs asked for recommendations of service providers, I provided contact details and included descriptions of notable positive interactions and the strengths of each to contextualise why each was worthy of recommendation. Strangely, multiple people reached out to me to say to me that this was unusual and asked me why I bothered to put in the effort or even the mechanics of my process. And so, I had several opportunities to incrementally reflect on my practice of appreciation.
More recently, I began sharing more openly about aspects of my journey, particularly, on being ill and the fears I had. It was a harrowing step to take. I didn’t mind being vulnerable, but I struggled with the seeking and receiving of help. My truth of it: the difficulty was in being seen and accepting generosity for which I could never know if I was deserving.
I was overwhelmed, as I expected (because I am fortunate to have come to know and encounter many incredible humans), by the outpouring of support and it came in so many different shapes. It was beautiful, breathtaking, and it created a nest for my heart and mind that I could carry with me into the intimidating setting of an operating theatre, into the confines of a convalescent bedroom for months afterwards, and into the forced retreat of a restricted lifestyle. People also sent me gifts of books, trinkets, journals, and one person, astonishingly contributed to a refurbished laptop on which I have been crafting literally tens of thousands of words since.
Overwhelmed, I swirled with questions of worthiness and how to permit myself to receive the gifts that were showing up in my world, lavished upon me.
But this simply would not do. I could not languish in overwhelm because I believed that would not honour these people and their acts of generosity, of seeing me, and of reaching towards me. So, I wrote thank you cards. At first, the cards were store-bought because it was frustratingly beyond my physical capacity to do much more than handwrite a few lines. I was limited to writing one to two cards in an entire day, such were the limits of my physical capacity to overcome pain and exhaustion and healing demands. When I ran out of the small box of cards, I began to make cards. It reignited another element of art practice in me, one that has lain dormant for years as I diligently studied and worked a career path that I hoped would allow me to effect change and positive impact.
In recognising I needed and wanted to find other ways to show my gratitude, I wound my way to another form of art practice. And so, I have another reason to be grateful to all those people. This time, I am trying to breathe through the sense of overwhelming thanks because, the more I have practiced acknowledging that I am a writer and an artist, I have started to give myself a gift I have been giving others. I see myself. I see that I am who I am, constantly evolving. There are labels that others might apply to me and they might fit me more comfortably like a well-tailored garment, or they might be categorisations applied to appease prejudices. What is more important is that I have come to be more comfortable in seeing myself and being seen. It may have started as an earnest exercise to find ways to express gratitude, but it expanded to embrace my increasing visibility. Thank you.