We mostly talk about gratitude as a feeling—something passive—but, more importantly, it’s also active; it’s the follow-through of that feeling.
Arguably, passive gratitude isn’t gratitude at all.
What is gratitude, anyway? I’ve asked myself this many times in order to undo what I’ve learned over the years, especially as a child.
How many of us have heard our mom yell, “You should be grateful for all I’ve done for you!” when we say that we wish we had our friend Ned’s mom, who buys him the latest gadgets even when it’s not Christmas or his birthday. How many of us have been held to this standard of gratitude—as something we have to make ourselves feel?
And how many of us have heard our dad accuse us of being “ungrateful” when we say we’d rather starve than eat the bland greens steaming on our plates at dinner? Does eating what our parents cook for us mean we’re grateful for them?
Despite what our upbringing might’ve hammered into us, we cannot be grateful on command. Which is why my understanding of what “gratitude” means has always been knotted in conundrum. After all, what is gratitude when it’s not being taught, when it’s not a demand?
I say it all the time (especially on Thanksgiving): I’m grateful for my health. For my family, my friends, who support me when I least expect it. For being at a school as reputable as UCLA, in a city replete with culture, nightlife, cuisine. I say it, but I don’t always simultaneously feel it. Is this gratitude? And even when I do feel it I don’t always act like I do. Is that gratitude?
I used to believe that being grateful was a profound experience that could knock me to my knees. I vividly remember in high school sometimes seeing my mom, a devout Christian, in the living room genuflecting with her hands on the carpet in a vaguely yogic pose, praying, shaking her head in humble gratitude, face wet with tears, all the while muttering, “Thank you God, thank you,” repeating that again and again…
I’ve never professed that kind of gratitude to anyone even though I’ve always wondered what it feels like. Because when I feel grateful I’m often alone, and it’s retrospective, when the thing I’m grateful for is gone.
To remind me that life is precious and ephemeral, my mom likes to tell a story from when we lived in Chicago. I went to a pre-K daycare supervised by a woman named Miss Rosa, who once saved me from almost being hit by traffic one morning when I snuck out of the building to play in the middle of the street. By luck, she noticed that I was missing, peered through the window, and ran outside to yank me back to the sidewalk.
Being so young, I wasn’t grateful at the time. Sometimes you need the perspective of hindsight—a more mature perspective—in order to be grateful, to realize what was at stake. Miss Rosa is gone from my life now—I don’t even remember what she looked like—and there’s no way I can thank her directly for what she did. But I carry this gratitude with me; I feel its weight on my back. Perhaps the only way I can act it is by doing what she did, when I have a child of my own.
What I’m trying to argue is that passive gratitude isn’t gratitude at all because it doesn’t prove that you actually are. Feeling grateful without acting grateful is like mooching: taking without returning the favor, even in some small way. You might as well be taking things for granted and no one would know the difference.
What I’ve written here are things I try to recall each day, as challenging as this sometimes is. I try to recall it when I’m back home for the holidays and I hear my mom washing dishes when I’m pigging out on the couch, watching a movie. I try to recall it when a stranger goes out of her way to help me when I drop a stack of paper. I try to show my gratitude, even if it’s belated.
Now, dear reader, I invite you to reflect on your own. What does gratitude mean to you, and how do you show it?