Gratitude is a practice; it is a practice which can make someone feel alive and heard in the world, and one which can make someone feel small, unwanted and worse. Perhaps here I’m talking about two different kinds of gratitude.
For a long time I resisted the idea of cultivating a gratitude practice mainly because I saw the expectation to be grateful as a way which oppression manifests itself in the society in which I live. Children are often told to be grateful for what they have as a remedy for either seeing injustice or directly experiencing injustice. In the Protestant tradition, as far as I can see, being grateful became a virtue which was put onto others. The poor should be grateful for what they have; those people over there should be grateful that we came to civilise them; the disabled people should be grateful that we have not left them to die. It is wrapped up with charity and toleration of your circumstances rather than a window to liberation. The way that expectations of gratitude are structured and repeated become a tool to disconnect and separate people.
Used in this way gratitude is a way of indoctrinating people, telling them that their ways of life are not the right ways. Expecting and telling people to be grateful as a way of infantilising them. When I use the word infantilising it implies that a child is less than fully human. In my mind this brings us straight back to the
stripping of humanness that structures of gratitude do in the world. The practice of expecting gratitude has been and continues to be a tool of oppression. One function of this is to stem anger about injustice. This adds weight to the sense that anger is not a good thing, and it is not easily tolerated. But part of working towards liberation is to make space for anger, to take up space with our anger. This is a form of resistance.
There are of course many types of gratitude practice, and of manifesting gratitude, not all of which operate to stem anger, infantilise, or oppress. Appreciation for what is now, for the good things in life, for small things; appreciation for the work you do, how you survive and for your skills and strengths; for the fact that you are here and that you are enough, no matter what. This kind of appreciation cultivates a sense of belonging and a sense of groundedness.
This kind of gratitude practice, appreciating the small things that you are grateful for, is about connection rather than disconnection. Connection to what is happening now, to humanness, nature, the world and your place in it, to the beauty in the universe and to the people around you. Being grateful for the small things makes it easier for me to be grounded in what is happening now.
But then what about the place of anger? The difference here is between something that is given to you that you should be grateful for and something that is innate, your innate human connection. Perhaps we should refuse to be grateful for the things we are ‘given’, and refuse to honour the expectation of gratitude which keeps silence, allows smallness and diminishes everyone. Instead, we should work to honour our innate right to follow a life of joy, love and anger, using a practice of being grateful for it all.
by Lani Parker