About 11 years ago, I was in the throes of what I now know to have been post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. To help myself through, I turned to the body I thought would heal me: my church.
I’m no longer practicing but, as someone born and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was well-acquainted with lessons on gratitude. Gratitude will heal you, I was taught.
Eleven years ago, I took that lesson to heart. I bought a bundle of small notebooks and each night before bed wrote down seven things for which I was grateful. I believed that by doing this, not only would I be healed, but it also it would reshape my entire traumatized outlook.
Now when I look at those notebooks, I feel sorrow. I wasn’t coping and my notebooks just denied my lived reality. Instead of reflecting on how I truly felt, I pretended everything would be fine if only I were grateful enough.
Each night was a tortuous exercise, like carving granite with my fingernails. The only thing I could genuinely feel grateful for every day was my cat. It wasn’t that everything during that time was bad, but when you’re in active PTSD, you’re on high alert for danger and numb to everything else. You don’t have space for gratitude because you’re just trying to survive.
And that brings me to LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and his guidance to #GiveThanks.
Friday, Nelson delivered a video message addressing the world’s current woes, including the COVID-19 pandemic. He briefly mentioned his support for preventing the spread and then prescribed expressions of gratitude, suggesting church members use social media to share.
Counting your blessings makes a nice Bing Crosby song, but it doesn’t end a pandemic. When a virus has killed, as of this writing, a quarter million people nationally and 1.34 million people globally, a hashtag isn’t enough. And when a significant number of church members don’t follow COVID-prevention guidelines, a talk about gratitude is cold.
Practicing gratitude can be a tool in coping with individual or global traumas, but if it is the tool, it stops true progress. “Counting our blessings,” instead of recounting problems, as Nelson said, serves no one. A problem doesn’t go away because you turn your back on it. It festers until it is dealt with.
Posting a hashtag while refusing to wear a mask doesn’t stop the spread of COVID-19. Giving thanks while ignoring physical distancing guidelines contradicts the mandate to love your fellow beings. Sharing on Instagram doesn’t help the medical professionals who have borne witness to this pandemic since day one. #GiveThanks doesn’t bring back the ones we’ve lost, and it doesn’t take away the ongoing symptoms many COVID survivors experience. And while church members post gratitude every day, people continue to die.
When I practiced my nightly torture ritual, the problem wasn’t that I was trying to be grateful. It wasn’t that I took a few moments to reflect on my day. It wasn’t that the things I wrote down were necessarily untrue. The problem was, my notebooks on their own were a version of me plugging my ears and humming while I just waited for it to be over.
I thought it would reframe my outlook, make me more hopeful. But true hope isn’t putting a positive sheen on something horrible. True hope requires facing what’s in front of you and dealing with it.
So, go ahead and give thanks. But do it while you wear a mask, practice physical distancing and follow science.
Tamsen Maloy is a freelance journalist living in Centerville.