Gratitude and Foreboding Joy

I really wish I had read Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly before writing The Slavery of Death. You might be surprised by this, but I think Daring Greatly is the perfect companion book to The Slavery of Death.

Let me give an example. One of the take home points from The Slavery of Death is how the practices of doxological gratitude help us overcome our slavery to the fear of death, our fear of loss. And in Daring Greatly Brené Brown makes similar observations about gratitude and our fear of loss.

Specifically, in her work on vulnerability Brené has discovered, somewhat paradoxically, a connection between joy and our fear of loss. When we experience deep joy we feel extraordinarily vulnerable, we fear that the joy will not last, that something tragic will happen that will rob us of happiness.

Anyone who is a parent understands this. The birth of a child is a deep and profound joy. But the birth of a child also introduces into our lives a chronic fear of loss. Our joy is fragile and precarious. Tainted by the prospect of death. In becoming a parent I was never more joyful but I was also never more afraid and cognizant of death.

In Brown’s research she has asked people about when they have felt the most vulnerable and exposed to loss. And more often than not what people have shared with her are experiences of great joy. According to Brown these are the sorts of experiences in life that make us feel most vulnerable (Daring Greatly, p. 119):
  • Standing over my children while they are sleeping.
  • Acknowledging how much I love my husband/wife.
  • Knowing how good I’ve got it.
  • Loving my job.
  • Spending time with my parents.
  • Getting engaged.
  • Going into remission.
  • Having a baby.
  • Being happy.
  • Falling in love.
As you can see from this list, joy and the fear of loss go hand in hand.

In the face of this anxiety Brown goes on to describe how many people, in the face of this exposure and vulnerability, practice what she calls “foreboding joy.”

According to Brown, foreboding joy is a way of coping with our fear of loss by emotionally withdrawing from joy so that we might protect ourselves from disappointment. Brown describes a continuum of strategies here from “rehearsing tragedy” to “perpetual disappointment,” from ruminating about worst-case scenarios to keeping our expectations very, very low. According to Brown, all these strategies share a central idea:
We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.
Relevant to my analysis in The Slavery of Death, the antidote to foreboding joy, according to Brown, are the practices of gratitude. People who stay open to joy, despite its risks, are those who practice gratitude. As Brown summarizes, joy is “a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.”

In addition, Brown also describes gratitude as a spiritual practice, which connects gratitude to doxology. As Brown writes, “joyfulness and gratitude [are] spiritual practices that [are] bound to a belief in human connectedness and a power greater than us.”

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