January 14, 2021

What I Learned about Gratitude from Teaching Writing in a Federal Prison.


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“Everything is gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.” ~ Brother David Steindal-Rast


In 2019, I taught a writing class at a men’s federal prison focused on gratitude.

The class was made up of students from ages 18 to 80. They were primarily men of color. The class lasted for 12 weeks, and students kept gratitude journals and completed several essays.

Each class session was focused on a different gratitude-related topic: gratitude research, gratitude beyond toxic positivity, and gratitude and grief. I learned so much from the students throughout the class, not only about gratitude—but also about humanity, compassion, and love.

The students’ perspectives shattered my heart into a million pieces regularly.

Steindal-Rast’s quote was the writing prompt I used on the day I asked them to write a thank-you note to whom it was difficult for them to thank. I did not put any parameters on the assignment. They could write to an easy person, a hard person, or anyone in between, depending upon what their heart could handle.

I just wanted them to think about what it might look like to frame gratitude in the complexity of the question: “What does being grateful to everyone and everything really mean?”

Some read their thank-you notes aloud. Their notes were to their wives, their children, their parents, prison officials, and even the people who let them take the fall.

They disagreed about whether it is possible to be grateful for being in prison. They disagreed about the very nature of forgiveness and whether some people deserve to be forgiven. They disagreed about redemption and if people can change. They disagreed about whether or not people are fundamentally good. At the heart of those disagreements is being grateful to everyone and everything.

As someone who studies gratitude, and the connection between gratitude and wide-awakeness, I learned a great deal from my students.

I learned our common humanity is rooted in the belief that everything, even life itself, is a gift. That fundamentally we are interconnected and interdependent beings and we are rooted in our capacity to be seen and understood. We are as connected as the air we breathe and the compassion we practice. I am grateful for breath and compassion.

My classroom—our classroom—was a place where life itself was celebrated.

I learned that gratitude is, as Diana Butler Bass suggests in her book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, a subversive practice. It disrupts the stories we tell ourselves about right and wrong, strength and weakness, good and bad, fear and shame. It forces us to rebel against our worst angels and live a life of loving-kindness. It inspires questions and reflection, rather than fixed-in-concrete opinions and longstanding, enduring pain. It is a unifying construct in that we can all meet there—from wherever we live—and find comfort.

Ultimately, when we are grateful for everyone and everything, and view our whole life as a gift, we open ourselves to grace.

I learned that when we view everything as a gift, everything can become a gift. By that I mean we soften to the suffering we all experience. We release some of the load we carry. Our eyes see with new clarity beyond our own pain—in a world where we don’t think enough about what we can learn from loss, what we can share when we grieve together, and how we can connect in our joy. Viewing everything as a gift can be the start of a deeper conversation.

It has been some time since my class ended. I have had a year or so to sort through all that I have learned. Particularly in this moment of profound isolation, I remember that time with a deeper understanding of our world—how some human experiences are validated while others are not, how profound anger and sadness can fester and burn, and what it means to live through and look beyond our pain.

I still see my students’ faces in my mind’s eye. I hold the stories they entrusted to me close, as evidence that light lives in the darkest of places.

They are proof that everything is a gift.


Author’s Note: Since 2016, I have sought to better understand gratitude by conducting conversations with people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to live a grateful life.

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