On Gratitude Lists

I grew up learning that, paradoxically, bad things happened to good people (“for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust”) but good things also happened to good people because they were good, and bad things happened to bad people because they were bad. Now, how do you tell why a bad thing happened to you? Ay, there’s the rub. Is it a test sent to refine you? Or is it a punishment?

Nowadays I try to take a more nuanced view of what even constitutes “good” or “bad.” I’ve realized that this way of thinking–essentially, we get what we deserve–has hurt me and my self-esteem. Even placing people (and events) into such stark categories as “good” and “bad” is inaccurate and quite all-or-nothing thinking.

I have been tasked by multiple people to write a daily list of things I am grateful for for the purpose of improving my negative thinking. However, I have struggled with this. Looking for feedback, I have asked the people closest to me how they would assess my gratitude, and they have all said that I am one of the most grateful people they know. So if that’s true, why do I balk at making those gratitude lists? Because for everything I list, it reminds me that I don’t deserve any of it.

I don’t think I deserve anything good that comes my way because I haven’t earned it. I am painfully aware of all of my flaws, and it is very hard to live with myself. I see people who don’t have what I do, and I wonder why they, who must surely deserve these things more than I do (through hard work, exemplary character, much more effort, etc.) don’t.

I have come to realize that I think that people rely too much on the idea of meritocracy. I do believe people’s actions have consequences, but I don’t think that the good and bad consequences are as tightly controlled as people make them out to be. A lot of life is just luck and chance in my view. I say this not to dismiss the important work that people do but rather to counter those ideas I mentioned at the beginning about good things happening to good people because they are good. If you believe that line of thinking and misfortunes befall you, you will start to think you are a pretty awful person.

In a recent therapy session, I started talking about those assigned gratitude lists and my struggle to complete them. My therapist pointed out that maybe the word “gratitude” was the problem. Maybe I should call them something else.

I am trying to settle on a name, and I want it to be something about the universe that reflects the chance and arbitrariness of the good things that happen to me. I do not want it that way because I want to keep believing that I don’t deserve anything good. But you see, I believe that all people deserve good things. Just by being a living thing, someone deserves good things. If I believe that about others, maybe I should include myself in the collective that is humanity. We can actually still be grateful for chance and arbitrariness! We just don’t have to think that we are completely responsible.

(By the way, please feel free to disagree with me if you think I am missing something important. Like I said before, I don’t want to diminish anyone’s effort or work. I think people can enact change. I am focusing more on good vs. bad things that happen to us.)

I think “Chance Blessings from the Universe” could be a good name for my list. That way I can be grateful for the positive things in my life without feeling like I have to earn and deserve them. I can be grateful for things that cross my path and leave it at that, without feeling unworthy.