Those of you who care about such things know that Sunday was Nov. 1. Those of you with access to social media need no calendar to be cognizant of the season's change.
I was on Facebook for all of 1.748 milliseconds before I saw the first post containing that damn #30DayThankfulnessChallenge. For the three people in the world unfamiliar with this phenomenon, it's an online movement where well-intentioned folk use honeyed words to tell you every day of the month one thing for which they're grateful.
Listen, I love being appreciative. It's right up there with cake and kittens and rainbows in terms of things that make the world go round. Also, I'm not a total bitch. I adore seeing my friends happy and healthy and hollering from the Internet's rooftops about life's high points.
But that's what they are.
They're the high points, the good parts, the moments that are rose-colored and syrupy-sweet.
People are all pumped about their rescue dog and their Prius and their creative talent and their new personal trainer who, like, totally gets them and their fitness goals. And I'm like, "Good on you for being thankful for your apparently perfect, problem-free existence. What a sacrifice you're making by being grateful for all the dazzle you're dealt daily."
But what about the rest of life? The dips and downfalls and delayed dreams?
This is when I unveil my unpopular opinion: Presenting only the positive parts of our lives results in a misrepresentation of facts, and it doesn't generate grand-scale gratitude.
It's a well-known fact that reality isn't always lovely. Everyone has a pile of shit that we hide from the world. We chip away at our personal crap mountain, chanting "Fake it until you make it" as we present our peers with a persona that is as close to perfect as possible. All the while we're imagining a day when our real life will be as pleasant as we make it seem on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or SnapChat or whatever the cool kids use nowadays.
That's sort of bullshit.
When we boast about only the good parts of our lives, we risk showing the world an incomplete picture. I'm not saying the unedited portrait isn't great as is, because I think all lives are probably baller in their own unique ways. But we think the picture's not pretty enough, so we improve on it. We run it through our brain's Photoshop. We apply fancy filters and crop out the fuzzy parts. And then, inevitably and unfortunately, the people "liking" this picture are tempted to judge their lives against your manicured image.
When we publicly thank the powers that be for the sparkly things that we have (spouses, children, health, wealth, etc.), we unintentionally dare our loved ones to live up to our abridged versions of our existence. We gamble that they won't see our sparkly list and be reminded that they haven't found The One or that they're infertile or that they suffer from lupus or that their bank account is overdrawn.
I'm not trying to be preachy/cheesy/downright annoying. If tallying all the things you're thankful for is your jam, then embrace the process and post the fuck out of what floats your happy boat. You do you. I don't resent your good fortune.
What I'm trying (albeit imperfectly) to suggest is that maybe we should be more honest in our gratitude. Perhaps "honest" isn't the best word. Maybe I should say "forthright." Or "transparent."
I advocate this approach for selfish reasons. I've been there, seeing all the flashy Facebook posts about how immaculate everybody else's life is, and I've felt like a failure. And I've been on the other side, too, where I pimp out my statuses with the intent of making my life seem more grand, more ideal, more successful, more of more.
Two years ago at this time, I was doing that. I'm not proud of it, but there I was, ticking off all the things that people on the outside looking in would see as being the best parts of my life. But I knew I was lying. My world was total shit.
My cat had just met a premature and painful end, and doctors had recently discovered a gnarly lump on my thyroid that caused me to take on weight like the Titanic took on water. Depression debilitated me daily, and anxiety assaulted me any chance it got. Because my medical bills were climbing, I struggled to stay in school to get that long-anticipated college degree. My sister was planning her wedding to her drug dealer, my nephew was having stress seizures, and specialists had just told me and my husband that it was unlikely we could conceive through the old-fashioned method of aggressive cuddling.
So I got angry at the challenge.
I grew furious with everyone around me who seemed to rock the challenge by effortlessly invoicing all the glitter and gold in their lives that I did not have.
And I got bitter.
And then I did what I always do when I'm down.
I started watching Law & Order SVU from the beginning... again. But then after I did that, I did the other thing I do when I'm mopey.
I read this beautiful article about gorgeous quotes that change how people see the world.
And I found the one destined for me.
"Only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. - Ralph Waldo Emerson"
And my heart soared.
Except that the article went on to say that as ambrosial as this particular quote might be, it is actually a lie.
Emerson never put pen to paper and crafted those words, even though he's credited for them. That sentence doesn't once appear in any of his works/journals/correspondences/etc. He might have said something sorta like that once to somebody who then wrote down what he/she thought Emerson might have said, but it's not an actual quote. I know this because this article I was reading was all about "great things you wish your favorite author said that they actually didn't."
And that struck me on two fronts.
First, here's this wonderful thing that we are presented as truth, and we fall in love with this idea, and we hold it dear, and we view reality differently through this quote, but it doesn't exist. I'm not a metaphor whore, but you do see the point here, right?
Second, this sentence seemed so suited to my situation(s). I honestly remember thinking something like, "Okay, I'm in a super dark place, but because I am, I get to see stars that I never would if doused in the sunshine of a life full of luck."
Thus began my obsession with the concept that drove me to start this blog. I want to be real. And not just in private or with a chosen few. I want to live, talk about, and be grateful for my real life.
It's not always easy to be honest or forthright or transparent or whatever thesaurus-generated words I used a few paragraphs back. Sometimes I think I'd strangle ducklings if it meant I could pretend that everything is unicorns up in this bitch. But with each passing inconvenience/disappointment/tragedy, I have come to realize that the moments where I've grown the most are not my happiest. They're not the sort to post on Facebook or say that you're grateful you experience them.
But fuck that. Let's shake shit up. Let's instead use this month to share the stars that we've been able to glimpse because of our glorious periods of darkness.
I'll start by compiling my own list.
Don't panic. It's not 30 items. I don't have time for that every-day-in-November-shit. I just discovered the show iZombie, and it's not going to binge-watch itself. Plus, you came here for a blog post and got tricked into reading a novel, so I don't want to take up too much more of your time. (No, seriously, if you're still with me, you deserve some electrolytes and an endurance medal. Go buy yourself some Gatorade and a trophy and send the bill to Chris.)
Hopefully my list reminds you not of your darkest nights but rather of the beautiful imaginary stars I've worked so hard to reference throughout this post so that my writing feels cohesive and somewhat literary even though we all know it's been a reach.
Anyway, here it is. And for the record, I truly am grateful for these things. I'm not just typing it for shits and giggles. (See above statement about how much I need to be consuming zombie TV.)
1) The darkness: my depression. Before my serotonin tanked, I floated through my days on puffy clouds. I took feeling good for granted. I never relished it.
The star: mindfulness. Depression taught me to live in each moment. This technique has infinitely improved the way I live, and I never would have encountered this outlook without being forced to find a way to cope with mental illness. (For more on mindfulness, see Thich Nhat Hanh's book "Peace is Every Step.")
2) The darkness: my first fiance cheated on me. He invited another woman to ride his baloney pony and left me with a gaping wound where my soul used to be.
The star: my husband. If I hadn't almost married the first douche, I never would have hitched my wagon to the deity that is Chris. At the risk of sounding stoned (which I am a little), he's my everything, and I would've missed out on the best thing in my life if I hadn't endured complete heartbreak first.
3) The darkness: our electricity got shut off. Shortly after Chris and I got married, we were strapped for cash and tried to push off our bill. But the company didn't care that we got paid the day after payment was due, and they cut power. We sat in the dark, and it was humiliating and horrible.
The star(s): partnership and perspective. In that moment of shared shame, I knew that Chris and I were a team, and that we were in this together, and that if the worst thing that happened that day was that our lights wouldn't turn on, we were so much more lucky than so many people in the world. We got the money rounded up, and we got our electricity turned back on, and when finances are tight now, I can look back on that low point and say, "At least the lights are on."
4) The darkness: my sister passed. Obviously, I'm not a stone cold shrew, and in no way do I want you to think that I'm glad she's dead.
The star: empathy. I wish like hell my sister were alive. But because I experienced true, gut-wrenching loss, I now know first-hand how life can change in an instant, and I feel I am better equipped to be a more understanding person because of it. When I say, "I feel your pain," I mean it.
5) The darkness: I got fat. Oddly enough, of all the struggles I've had in my life, this has easily been the most difficult. I went from 160 pounds to 286 pounds in a relatively short period of time, and it shattered my sense of self.
The star(s): true self-confidence. It's taken oodles of time, but I now realize that the real me isn't my looks. It's not what size I wear (which is a 22, by the way). The real me is my spirit, my personality, my desire to be a better human being and to do something worthwhile with my life. Furthermore, it helped me stop being such a judgmental bitch.
6) The darkness: God failed me. I grew up in an oppressive Evangelical Christian community that made me feel like shit. I was raised to believe in a vengeful, cruel, petty God whose love was conditional on my perfection. In my mid-20s, I abandoned God, because he had so clearly abandoned me.
The star: peace. When I hit my spiritual rock bottom, I started to look for true meaning rather than the pre-packaged propaganda I'd been fed as a child. I read other holy books. I started meditating. I looked to science for answers. I met with atheists and Imams and Bahá'í folks and Hindus and really and truly opened myself to other ways of thinking. Through this spiritual pilgrimage, I finally found my place in the Universe, and for the first time in my life, I'm at peace. I know my true heart.
7) The darkness: I was molested. It was horrid, and that's enough about that.
The star(s): context and forgiveness. That nightmare introduced me to centrism. I grew up in a strict environment where everything clearly fell into two categories: right or wrong. Middle ground didn't exist. Now, I see in all sort of shades of gray (more than 50, and none of them BDSM). My abuser was a foster kid who was repeatedly raped in his youth. I don't think he made the right choice when he did what he did to me, but I can look at the moments in his past that led him to that decision, and I forgive him.
8) The darkness: my parents disappointed me. When they were going through their own rough patch with two of my siblings, my mom and dad said hurtful things to me that left me shaking and sobbing.
The star: a reality check. When the heartache abated, I recognized something I hadn't before: my parents are human, and the standards I set for them were impossible to maintain. Once I realized that they're just people with feelings and flaws just like me, I saw them for who they really are rather than who I wanted them to be, and that made me respect and love them all the more.
9) The darkness: I couldn't afford college after high school. It's a long story, but the irresponsibility of my two older sisters prevented me from attending university as a traditional student, and I've been self-conscious as hell about my lack of education for more than a decade.
The star: I'm hella smart now. As a non-trad, I valued the fuck out of my education in a way I couldn't possibly have done as a 19-year-old. Every semester I've been to school as an adult, I've studied my ass off and retained so much goddamn knowledge, and I'm proud of how I earned my just about to be conferred degree.
10) The darkness: I'm probably infertile. Chris and I can fuck like bunnies, but we're not going to be popping out furry spawn anytime soon, and that makes my heart hurt.
The star: the knowledge that everything is going to be okay. I know in a way that many others possibly can't how precious life is. And because I have adopted siblings, I know that if Chris and I get chosen to parent someone else's child that we will love that kid like he/she hung the moon. Also, throughout this process, Chris and I have discovered that we're insanely happy just as we are, with each other and our cats and our 11 nieces and nephews. Yes, we want more, but if we don't get it, we know that life is going to be pretty damn swell just as it is.
So that's it. That's my shit list. Or, rather, my shit-I'm-thankful-for-list. And I'm proud of it. I'm proud that it reflects the real me.
Normally this is the part where I'd encourage you to compile your own list, but I realized that at least one of my readers thinks this is a stupid idea on its most basic level.
I was chatting online with a Canadian blogger friend about this #30DayThankfulnessChallenge, and she was all like, "What the fuck is that?" And then I was like, "It's this thing some Americans do where every day during November leading up to our Thanksgiving where they list one thing for which they're thankful. So, you know, Day 1: 'I'm thankful I married the most handsome man on the planet,' Day 2: 'I'm thankful for Jesus,' Day 3: 'I'm thankful for bunnies.'" And she was all like, "Day 1: I'm so thankful I'm not an American."
What's today? The 5th? Okay. Here goes.
Day 5: I'm thankful I have sassy Canadian friends who say that sort of shit and then suggest that I find a sponsor to pay me to write a review about adult diapers since I have a mild incontinence issue related to my tumor medicine.
True story: Life would be super swell if we all embraced our OMG side instead of living a Facebook-friendly existence. So, let it out. What darkness led you to see spectacular stars? Or do you think I'm full of crap and being too goddamn pretentious and preachy with this little movement of mine? What things are you grateful for, if you haven't had the dark periods others might have? Feel free to disclose details. You're safe here.