The Many Shapes of Gratitude

“You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” -Cormac McCarthy

It’s nearly impossible to go a day these days without hearing about the benefits of practicing gratitude. Whether it’s expressing thankfulness out loud or keeping a gratitude journal, there are numerous ways to focus on the good that life constantly offers to us. Yet, while we know scientifically that there are positive effects to counting one’s blessings, it can be incredibly easy to forget just how effective the practice is.

However, the quote from above – “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from” – is particularly helpful to me. Interestingly, it essentially translates to “It could always be worse,” which, to me, is the central focus of practicing gratitude.

I’ve struggled with this, though. How can we possibly say such things to people who have suffered tremendous loss? For example, how can we tell someone who has lost a loved one in a tragic accident or to a long-fought illness to simply remember how it could always be worse? What “worse luck” did those incidents save them from?

I recently listened to a podcast interview with Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Sheryl lost her husband in 2015 when he unexpectedly died of a heart arrhythmia while running on the treadmill. She recalled a moment in the months after her husband’s death when a friend essentially told her that things could have been worse.

I have to admit, my mouth dropped open while I was listening to this – how can you say something like that to the surviving spouse of a deceased person?!

Apparently, the friend went on to suggest that her husband could have experienced the heart condition while, say, driving her kids around, and therefore could have been involved in a crash that killed all of them.

Whoa. Talk about perspective. That type of thinking may not suit everyone’s preferences during such a period of grief, but it definitely made a difference in Sheryl’s outlook. She expressed feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude, even in the midst of her grief, for the fact that her children were alive and healthy.

The point is that we all understand the nature of gratitude differently. We all practice it differently. For some, “looking on the bright side” simply may not be enough for the time being. Others may need more stark examples of how things could be worse to remember to count their blessings. One of the ways in which I’ve observed people (myself included) struggle when giving advice to others, is having expectations attached to how the advice is received. Not everyone interprets information the same way, and what resonates with one person may not resonate with another.

It can be easy to lose patience with others when they don’t understand ideas the way you want them to understand them. But, we all have distinct ways of approaching gratitude. Perhaps the best thing we can do is support each other as best as we can, as we figure out our own ways of embracing the good that life has to offer in the midst of difficult times.