The Thin Line Between Guilt And Gratitude

With Canadian Thanksgiving fast approaching, I’ve had my mind on the idea of being thankful. In particular, a conversation at work related quite nicely to this topic. Two nurses were talking about their experiences while visiting South Africa and all the poverty and strife they witnessed, especially from the medical perspective. One nurse said, “After coming back home, I didn’t even feel like I belonged here,” to which my other coworker responded, “Oh, I belong in Canada. I’m just extremely thankful for what I have here.” To me that conversation embodied two sentiments that often arise as a result of evaluating the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in our world - guilt and gratitude. I relate to guilt, “That should have been me” and to gratitude, “I’m thankful that it’s not me.” These are two completely different sentiments, but I feel we should try to embody the latter and not the former. Sometimes it’s a balancing act between the two.

I often marvel at the privileges which we, as a society, enjoy simply because of the time in which we happened to be born; not to mention the place in the world and the culture in which we happened to have grown up. If I had been born even sixty years ago, my life would have been incredibly different. My rights and identity as a Canadian citizen, a woman and, especially, as a visible minority would not exist in the way they do today. Even if my parents had chosen not to immigrate to Canada when they did, and I had been born in India, I would have led a completely different lifestyle. I would not have been afforded the same education, the same amenities and the equal rights as a woman that I have as a Canadian. And India is not even the worst place in the world for women. My point is that we, as a society, are enjoying privileges and lifestyles much different than other societies and other times, often as a result of mere circumstances rather than our own actions.

Photo courtesy of Eugene Kim

I never thought I’d say it, but my mother was right (gasp!). Whenever I complain about anything, she responds first with a “Mani, things could always be worse.” And she’s right - a simple change in fate, or a different decision by my predecessors (or me) would have made my complaints today seem rather trivial. If you are reading these words, reflecting on your own life and feeling bad for what you have and others don’t, that isn’t my intention at all. My purpose is to make you feel good about what you - and I - have so that we can appreciate it and honor it. Guilt is a negative sentiment that often leaves us feeling powerless, helpless, and simply doesn’t do justice to the progress and hard work of the society in which we live. Gratitude, on the other hand, empowers us. It helps us to accept and respect the privileges which we enjoy without ignoring or neglecting the disparities in our world. Gratitude helps us realize that with our rights and blessings come the power and the responsibility to help others.

Whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving (or celebrate it in the States in November), I hope that you can take at least one day to be grateful for all the gifts you have. Life is not always easy. The problems that we each face are totally subjective and can only be judged within the context of our own experiences. It would be unfair to say, "stop complaining completely," or to continually trivialize our own problems simply because there are individuals in the world living with much less. What we can do is express gratitude, be thankful for what we have and try our best to expand our perspective so that we can better cope with our problems. I hope you can empower yourself with gratitude and give yourself a little more breathing room in your own life and the challenges you face. I hope that you can celebrate the fact that, despite the problems in the world and in our lives, there are incredible gifts that cannot be ignored; gifts that balance out all that is wrong. I hope that same gratitude will inspire you to recognize your power as a result of those gifts and, in turn, give back through something as simple as true appreciation of the food, wealth, health and abundance we enjoy and not dishonoring it by wasting needlessly. There are other steps that we can take to lessen the inequality in our world that include volunteer work, getting involved in government or with supporting human rights groups. If you are affluent, or have any sort of windfall, you could donate money to charities which are working to the same rights and benefits we enjoy to less fortunate societies.

Happy Thanksgiving all!