The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Gratitude and Transformation
The first session at our church retreat last weekend was on "gratitude." I was paired with my friend Pamela as she completed the sentence, "Some of the things that I love about being alive on Earth are ..." It was wonderful to see her face light up and her eyes sparkle when she spoke about the experiences and the relationships that bring joy into her life.
Naming our gratitude had a very serious purpose. It was an essential step in preparing for the second session of the day, on "honoring our pain for the world." To be able to dig deeply into emotions of pain, grief and anger, we needed to have a solid foundation built on the cherished qualities of life.
The retreat was one way that my home church is being informed and challenged by the excellent book, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in without Going Crazy, by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. They write:
recognizing the gifts in your life is profoundly strengthening. By savoring these gifts, you add to your psychological buoyancy, which helps you maintain your balance and poise when entering rougher waters. ... Gratitude enhances our resilience, strengthening us to face disturbing information.
In a week, the United States celebrates Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Folk will gather with family and friends, eat too much, watch football, prepare for "Black Friday" shopping excursions, and -- somewhere in the mix -- most will pause to give thanks.
The prayers and comments at most Thanksgiving tables will be sincere, and many of them will voice appreciation for the good things that are generally highlighted within our society: health and supportive families, jobs and economic sufficiency, a nice place to live.
The sort of gratitude described in Active Hope calls us in a somewhat different direction, and may even contradict some of the standard Thanksgiving approaches. Being thankful can allow us to feel comfortable with the way things are. Gratitude, as a deeper emotion, can be the starting point for social change and transformation.
I am grateful (indeed!) for the insights into gratitude that I gained from reading Active Hope. I share three of the distinctions that I have come to see between thanks and gratitude, both as a commentary on the US holiday, and as valuable perspectives for those of us who have a commitment to eco-justice and the healing of God's creation.
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(1) The chapter on gratitude in Active Hope has a short exercise for the reader. Notice something that has happened within the last 24 hours that makes you glad. Savor the experience and recall it in detail. Then give thanks for anyone -- or anything -- that helped the moment to happen. That last step they call attribution, the recognition that we don't do everything ourselves. Attribution is an essential component of real gratitude.
You may recall that a messy part of US politics last summer argued about the phrase, "you didn't build that." On the surface, it was a conflict about the role of government. It was a passionate campaign line for both sides, though, because it expressed a deeper philosophical split between community and individualism.
When our gratitude includes attribution -- when we see how other people, natural systems and God have brought goodness into our lives -- we have to admit that we don't build it all ourselves, we don't do it all ourselves. "Gratitude is a social emotion. It points our warmth and goodwill out toward others."
As you compose and voice Thanksgiving prayers, as you listen to prayers from others, take the initiative to include attribution. Be sure to name the beings and the systems that have helped to bring the blessings to you.
(2) Thanks voiced in the context of a materialistic, consumer society is easily skewed into something shallow and distorted. Lists tend to describe what I have or own. The massive amount of advertising pushed at us as we head into the "Christmas" merchandising season make us aware of our possessions, and actually increase our dissatisfaction. In the midst of an incredibly affluent society, depression has reached epidemic proportions.
Gratitude can redefine the lists for which we give thanks. When we expand from an emphasis on possessions and family, we can take delight in things that are part of a larger commons -- the society in which we live, and the natural world that sustains us. Expressing this kind of gratitude reduces a focus our own desires and needs, and grounds us in a broader community and in the web of life. Such gratitude will then motivate us to care for, and to participate in, the communities for which we give thanks.
(3) Active Hope clarified for me the connection between gratitude and "how to face the mess we're in without going crazy." That sort of gratitude was embodied in the few minutes when Pamela exuded genuine joy about her love of being on Earth. Gratitude is not about things or issues. It is about relationship.
We do live in a world that can drive us to despair or make us crazy. There is too much violence, too much injustice, too many ways in which creation is being damaged and destabilized. Climate change, extinction, poverty and famine are not things that lead us to thanksgiving. And yet gratitude is essential to sustain us as we grapple with these critical issues.
The book opened my eyes to the fact that there does not need to be a close link between the experience of gratitude and the issues that are difficult. Yes, on the days when I grieve ecological destruction, I can be thankful for the scientists who provide understanding, the inventors who seek solutions, and the activists who push for change. But more importantly, a broad spirit of gratitude brings hope and strength, even when there are not solutions in the works.
Gratitude reminds us that there is good and beauty in the world, and that God's creation is worth fighting for. Gratitude embeds is in relationships of trust and reciprocity, so that we are not alone. Gratitude allows us to face the situations that are filled with pain, because there are other sources of love, beauty and support that are empowering and sustaining.
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When our thanks are personal, material and superficial, they are also fragile. Denial can be a necessary partner to shallow thanks, hiding the experiences that we fear.
Gratitude, though, "enhances our resilience." It makes us stronger and more honest. It grounds us in community and relationship. It draws us outside of ourselves and engages us with our neighbors, all of creation, and God.
On Thanksgiving Day, certainly, but on every day, an intentional spirit of gratitude allows us to live and act joyously as we seek justice and healing, and as we work for transformation of ourselves and our world.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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