Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude as Teacher

Recently, a friend of mine posted on Facebook that "Systems of power commonly solicit gratitude in the form of guilt in order to keep the system running smoothly."  Case in point: millionaire executives of a failing junk food conglomerate giving themselves big, fat raises before declaring bankruptcy, and then blaming the failure of the company on striking workers, whom they accuse of insufficient "gratitude."

Fair enough.  It puts a little bit of a damper on my Thanksgiving to reflect on such things, especially when I think of the number of workers who will be out of jobs just in time for the holidays.

Yet...  In a very real sense, in more ways than one, gratitude has saved my life.  And it literally has become one of my most valuable teachers.

Now my friend Melanny poses a fair question.  And I'm glad she's posed it.  When gratitude is converted from a spontaneous response to the good in our lives into a religious duty (as it often is within my particular religious framework as a Mormon), does it create a frame of mind in which we become all too pliable in the hands of the powerful?  When we teach gratitude as a virtue, as a philosophy in which we "always look at the bright side of life," does it turn us into Pollyanna-ish zombies, incapable of standing up to gross injustice?

My short answer to this question is, No.  And here's why.  I worked hard as hell to defeat Minnesota Amendment 1, which would have permanently banned me and my husband from being married in our home state.  For nine months, every week -- sometimes twice a week -- I was manning the phone banks, training phone bankers, and canvassing.  In between that, I was participating in and organizing meetings of people within faith-communities, including my own Mormon faith community, to work against the amendment.  I donated hundreds of dollars to the campaign, more than I have ever donated to any political campaign.  I've never worked so hard for any political campaign.

And what fueled this unprecedented political commitment to prevent a constitutional injustice being committed against my family?  Was it discontent with the status quo?  Anger at the powers that be? No.  Discontent and anger, I've found, are draining emotions.  They tend to motivate -- in me at any rate -- disgust and paralysis.  No, these were not the emotions fueling my involvement in the campaign.

It was gratitude.  And a very specific gratitude.  Gratitude for my husband and our son.  Gratitude for my family.

Phone-banking was hard work.  You spent a lot of time talking to people who thought it was polite to tell you point blank that homosexuality is a sin.  Or people who thought you were nice enough, but your relationship really didn't contribute to society.  And so on.  What kept me going?  I had a framed color photograph of me and Göran and Glen sitting on the desk in front of me.  When things got tough, I looked at that picture and I remembered them, my love for them, my deep, deep gratitude that I had them in my life.  I remembered everything my husband has given me, which is everything that is really good in my life.  That's what kept me going.  And I knew at some deep, instinctual level, that if I had ever let slip that gratitude as the driving force in my activism, if I ever instead had focused on my frustration over all the people who didn't get it, or the absurdity of having to fight this kind of amendment in the first place, I would lose it.  We were, after all, behind in the polls most of the time I was volunteering.  I knew I would have slipped into discouragement and given up and gone home.  It was gratitude that kept me getting up and going back, time after time.

Within the past few months, I've been through what was, undoubtedly, the most personally grueling experience of my life -- a bike accident, concussion, and undetected subdural hematoma that could easily have left me dead one week before my 49th birthday.

I have permanently lost 8 hours of my life, 8 hours of memory that are a personal reminder to me of my brush with oblivion.  And I remember, when I finally became cognitively aware of what was happening to me, I was first aware of nurses gently moving me into a CT scanner.  And then later, a doctor (a rather hunky male doctor at that!) applying staples to my head to close the terrible gash above my right temple.  And I remember that my first conscious thought was, "Oh, I think I'm here because I almost died."  And then my response to that emergent awareness: Gratitude.  Thankfulness that I was alive.  Thankfulness that there were people here caring for me, doing their best to make sure I was OK.  And then, gazing over to my right, seeing my husband sitting by my emergency room cot with an expression of relief in his face that I was finally speaking coherently, and my son, with tears streaming down his face.  I remember thinking, "Glen, don't worry, I'm OK."  And I remember tears streaming down my own face -- tears of gratitude that my family was here by my side, that I had everything that really mattered to me right here: my life, my family.

Gratitude was not just a pointless, passing emotion here.  It became a source of boundless energy in the face of real danger.  It was a force for healing.  My gratitude kept me from panicking.  It kept me peaceful, open to my healers, open to my healing process -- a process which, after all, has required most of all patience.  Patience and gratitude go together.  Yes, gratitude does keep things "running smoothly," but not in a bad way.

And has gratitude turned me into a mindless zombie accepting whatever the status quo wants to dish out at me?  Not in any meaningful sense.  I've already described how gratitude turned me into a fighter for justice for Minnesota gay and lesbian families.

But gratitude has also become a teacher to me, a guide to what is right and wrong in my life.  One of the greatest moral struggles of my life has been trying to figure out what to make of the contradiction between the anti-gay teachings of the church I love -- a church I am deeply grateful for! -- and the love I feel for the man I have given 20 years of my life to.  And I discovered the first inklings of a resolution to that conundrum, in a prayer of gratitude to God.  As I knelt before God, in the early days of my return to the Church, I felt prompted by the Spirit to simply enumerate the things I was grateful for.  And so I began to list them: my testimony of the Gospel (I was grateful for this greatest of gifts, this compass that keeps me steady in my life), I was grateful for the atonement of Christ, grateful for my health, grateful for my work, and for a roof over my head.  More than for all of those other material things, I was grateful for my husband, who had been by my side in life, through thick and thin, even when I'd been a miserable jerk.  He'd stuck with me and loved me, and I'd loved him back and I was grateful for him.  And I felt the Spirit whispering to me, See all the good you have in your life.

It was then it dawned on me.  God saw my relationship with my husband, and God called it good.  It dawned on me, we can never really be grateful for sin.  We might enjoy sin.  We might use sin to get enjoyment.  But we are never really grateful for it.  In the end, sin blights our lives and leaves a bitter aftertaste in our throats.  The only gratitude we ever really experience in relation to sin is the gratitude for our redemption from it.  And the fact that I could feel genuine gratitude before God for my relationship with my husband, and that I could feel blessed by God in that gratitude had taught me an important moral truth.  And it taught me about the epistemological value of gratitude.

Yes, gratitude is a teacher.  I think that's the most fundamental meaning of the common-place saying that gratitude gives us a sense of perspective.

Don't mistake gratitude for complacency, or for compliance with convention.  Real gratitude is none of those things.  If you think gratitude means putting up with the demeaning of another single life anywhere in all of God's vast and good creation (including yourself), you've misunderstood the meaning of gratitude.

Gratitude has put fire in my bones, it's taught me about life, and it's literally saved my life.  So all I can feel in relation to gratitude is, well, gratitude.  It seems fitting to me that we have at least one day a year devoted it.

So whatever else you help yourself to this Thanksgiving, don't feel guilty.  Skip Black Friday, and have at least one extra serving of gratitude.  You'll be grateful you did!

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