Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ambivalence, Negativity and Giving Thanks

This time of year with fellow American’s celebrating Thanksgiving, swirling around on the internet and in popular culture is the question, “What are you thankful for?” It’s an important question to ask, and practicing gratitude is a great coping mechanism. Reminding yourself of all the privilege and joy you’re thankful for on a regular basis can be a great tool towards accepting a life with chronic pain. But I’ve noticed that a problem that seems to occur this time of year: people weaponize thankfulness.

When someone is having a hard time, people might reply, “Oh, but you have so much to be thankful for,” as if it is impossible to simultaneously be thankful for what you have but remorseful at what you don’t. Others use thankfulness to launch into “inspiration porn,” saying something like, “Sally can’t get out of bed, but every day she says how thankful she is to be alive. You can get out of bed, so you should feel more thankful.” In turn, this makes people who are suffering less apt to complain and more likely in internalize future problems. It’s not uncommon to hear, “Oh, I know I shouldn’t complain, I’m lucky because of x, y, z.” This attitude disparages the lived experience of those who are suffering. I posit that there is no mutual exclusivity between being thankful and being morose, and both experiences are just as valid and worthy of discussion.

Sometimes you can be thankful and bitter about the same things. Though it’s often lost in common usage, the term “ambivalence” means the experience of holding simultaneous contradictory opinions about a particular event. Ambivalence is a common experience when living with chronic illness. When a particularly side-effect laden treatment starts to make your illness feel better, there’s a deep ambivalence between relief that the treatment is working and resentfulness that it is necessary and so toxic. Embracing this ambivalence rather than trying to quash it is a necessary step in accepting the ups and downs of life with chronic illness versus searching endlessly trying to get “back to how it was.” Ambivalence is natural and normative.

I hope that you can find lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but its okay if you can’t. It’s okay to be thankful for something and mad as hell at it at the very same time. It is okay to feel all of the things you feel, irrespective of the contradiction or politically incorrectness. It’s okay to be you, where you’re at.