March 24, 2021

The Real Meaning of Gratitude.

“At times, our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” ~ Albert Schweitzer


Gratitude on Fire: Love Beyond a Scorched Earth.

Change felt optional when I started having gratitude conversations several years ago.

I was in the middle of volunteering in a blistering presidential campaign, when “deplorable” had significance and pipe bombs had been detonated in one small political field office. There was no pandemic, and George Floyd was still alive.

Change was something that could or could not happen. Change made people uncomfortable—so many did not see it as necessary and/or simply opted out. Today, change is different. Gratitude is different.

My gratitude project started with several main goals. To encourage compassion, kindness, and peace. To make gratitude tangible through writing gratitude stories. To contribute to the broader gratitude conversation. I started the project because gratitude was the only thing that I seemed to be able to talk about with just about everyone, and I wanted conversation. I wanted to understand. I learned through more than 30 formal (protocol-driven) and countless informal conversations that no one argues against gratitude, fundamentally.

I am not so sure gratitude is a unifying concept right now. When we are told flag-waving people do not truly support the person whose name is on the flag with which police officers are impaled. When lifesaving vaccine is sold as a campaign fundraiser. When a large faction of our leadership does not resoundingly support relief for our public and economic health. It feels a bit quaint to write about gratitude. That is why I propose gratitude needs to catch on fire.

“Who is the Enemy?”

While serving in AmeriCorps between 1994 and 1996, I participated in the New Generation Training Program. This program selected AmeriCorps members from across the United States to take part in a multi-week leadership training initiative. We explored the contours of leadership—ethics, communication, service, capacity building, amongst other things. The program was guided by David and Jennifer Sawyer. When I decided to talk to people about gratitude, David Sawyer was one of the first people I contacted. He is a person for whom I am deeply grateful. As a social entrepreneur, educator, and “change man,” I sought Sawyer’s insight.

Drawing from Richard Greenleaf, Sawyer asks, “Who is the enemy?” That question frames my thoughts about gratitude. These times are rife with enemies; disease; corruption; poverty; injustice; war; environmental degradation. The enemies often leave a wake of overwhelming grief. There are many reasons to retreat into helplessness, anger, and sadness. There are many reasons to let paralysis settle into our hearts and minds. Sawyer asserts that the true enemy is lack of action on the part of right-minded, justice-seeking, compassion-guided, future-building, love-centered people. In this light, Sawyer suggests he is grateful for the capacity to take action and serve. Serving others is gratitude catching on fire.

Toxic Positivity

For gratitude to catch fire, it must be reclaimed from the realm of toxic positivity. In a conversation with Brené Brown on her “Dare to Lead” podcast, “The Dangers of Toxic Positivity,” Dr. Susan David describes toxic positivity as forced false positivity. She explains,

“That sounds innocuous somewhat on the surface, but it’s basically saying to people, ‘My comfort is more important than your reality.’ Or if you do it to yourself, if you hustle with your own emotions, if you say to yourself, ‘I’m feeling lonely, but I shouldn’t be lonely because…people have it worse than me.’ You are gaslighting yourself. And it might sound on the surface like this is going to make you stronger and you’re going to be positive, but there is no research. There is no research supporting the idea that false positivity—in other words, a denial of our experience—is helpful to us as human beings.”

When we remain on the surface of our lives, we remain the enemy. When we sugarcoat the truth of what we know, we remain the enemy. When we separate our stories from both our joy and our pain, we remain the enemy. When we distance ourselves from one another, we remain the enemy. Acknowledging our experience—the totality of our experience—is the only path to authentic, heartfelt gratitude.

Sound the Call

We are challenged to catch gratitude on fire in ourselves. We are challenged to light a fire in others. We are challenged to live our lives creatively, to lead with hearts of love and forgiveness, and to be present to beauty. Gratitude can look like all that. Gratitude can look like union organizing and political activism. Gratitude can look like art in which characters and worlds are explored. Gratitude can look like a conversation between a timber company, environmentalists, and tribal elders determined to protect a sacred forest. Gratitude can look like teachers telling stories and playing with children.

This is gratitude in action. This is gratitude in the face of violence, cruelty, cynicism, apathy, and indifference. This is people using their gifts in service to the world. This is love beyond a scorched earth. This is gratitude on fire.



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