The Subversive Power of Gratitude

The train engine moved toward us, a transparent attempt on the part of the rail workers to intimidate the group of us sitting on the tracks. They blew the horn loudly, while the group chanted and waved signs protesting the recent explosion and fire that had happened during a train derailment in Mosier, Oregon a couple of weeks ago. Police were amassing, preparing for arrests in the din. 

It was June 2016. I was among a group of twenty-one activists sitting on the tracks in an act of civil disobedience in protest of the ongoing destruction of the climate, ecosystems, and communities by the fossil fuel industry. The fire in Mosier, a small scenic town in the Columbia River gorge, was only the most recent in a litany of train derailments, pipeline breaks, and gas explosions that leave a trail of destruction and ongoing devastation in their wake. The derailment wreaked havoc in the town, risking immolation of the houses, affecting water and sewer services, and creating lung-scorching smoke for days. As an arts organizer, my job was to bring art to bring beauty and messaging to the action. While I have been arrested previously in civil disobedience actions, I hadn’t planned to do so that day. 

Here’s what changed my mind. 

People were coming together in solidarity with a community that was still suffering needlessly as a result of unsafe practices from the railroad and oil company. The beauty and care of these people was inspiring and filled me with gratitude for the strong community of activists willing to witness, and, yes, risk arrest for a common cause. 

After the first order of dispersal from the police, I saw dear friend sitting alone on the train tracks, crying. I knew this was the first time she was risking arrest. She had quit her job in order to devote her whole being to climate justice, spurred on by concern for her children in particular. Her partner and children were watching, and my deep love and gratitude to someone whose devotion brought her to this moment was moving. I wasn’t about to let her sit there alone. 

We were soon joined by nineteen other souls. We sang and supported each other through the ordeal. After we were released from jail, caring folks were there to welcome us, make sure we got home, had food, and returned our belongings left on the tracks. 

In other words, gratitude is what inspired my willingness to risk arrest. It inspires much of what I do, both personally, and in service to the world. 

Much is written about gratitude as a kind of self-help practice. It’s easy to find articles and website material touting gratitude practices like writing down three things we are grateful for, or counting our blessings. These are valuable practices. However, I haven’t seen much exploration of how gratitude serves us collectively as a culture. 

Here are some thoughts that have occurred to me, particularly at this time in our political and cultural history when anxiety, fear, and anger are growing from all sides. It feels like the vast uncovering of a seething cultural war against humanity, justice, and the earth. 

Gratitude in these times? 

Hell, yeah! 

I’m talking about a radical, persistent, grounded, intentional gratitude. Something that is comes from the core, and can never be dictated or imposed on anyone from the outside. In fact, the quality of agency, of choosing for oneself, is inherently subversive. Dictatorial and top-down moves by the powers-that-be always seem to add a dash of “you should be grateful” to any policy, law, cultural expectation, or social norm that is inherently oppressive and unjust. Enough of that crap. 

And, yes, parents do have a role in teaching their children how to be grateful, but that’s done best in teaching by example, not by fiat. 

So, let’s talk about a robust, subversive, joyful gladness that we can turn to in these times. Let’s talk about why we should practice to grow it in our selves and our communities regularly, so that when times are particularly difficult, we will have grown our personal and collective gratitude muscles to work at any moment. 

So, what’s so subversive about gratitude? 

Gratitude subverts the predominant culture of consumerism and grows sufficiency. 

The machinery of consumer culture dictates that we need to buy stuff and experiences continually in order to feel okay about ourselves. The pressure to have the latest/newest/best of everything is such a part of our lives in the western world that it almost takes a kind of personal deprogramming to resist the purchasing reflex. We’ve had several generations now in the US who have been indoctrinated into the idea that it is our civic duty to buy stuff to keep the economy going, and, coincidentally, to actually feel like an adequate human being. Never mind that endless growth is not a sustainable economic model on any planet, but endless consumerism keeps us looking outside of ourselves for our own sense of sufficiency, of wisdom, of creativity. Growing gratitude for the qualities, activities, people, skills, etc. that are not tied to purchasing helps us to feel our selves, our wisdom, and our power more clearly. We get better at knowing what we need vs. what we want. It’s ok to want, of course, but making it a choice rather than a reflexive response to commercial indoctrination strengthens that sense of personal agency that is so needed these days. 

Gratitude subverts toxic individualism and grows connectedness and empathy. 

The American experiment has been fueled in large part by colonization, slavery, patriarchy, and individualism. There would be no United States of America without the idea of selfishness and getting one’s piece of the pie, coupled with an utter lack of empathy or respect for the rights of people of color.  Of course, there is a story of freedom and opportunity that sounds good until it’s pointed out that it’s only for certain people, or only in certain times. The narrative of the “self-made man” (gender specific, not by accident) is a core story of our culture. The writings by the queen of toxic individualism, Ayn Rand, inspire hordes of privileged white guys, many who make it into government jobs (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan), and use the ideology as a compass for laws that perpetuate the oppression and suppression of the populace.   

I recently came across a Thanksgiving article in the Christian Science Monitor from a few years ago. Here’s a snippet: 

“What should we really be celebrating on Thanksgiving? 

Ayn Rand described Thanksgiving as "a typically American holiday" whose "essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers' holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production." She was right. 

…This country was mostly uninhabited and wild when our European forefathers began to develop the land and then build spectacular cities, shaping what has become the wealthiest nation in the world. It's in the American spirit to overcome challenges, create great achievements, and enjoy prosperity. 

…What is the contemporary version of this bountiful harvest? In spite of the current state of the economy, it's our affluence… We alone are responsible for our wealth. We are the producers and Thanksgiving is our holiday.” (From Celebrate Thanksgiving the Ayn Rand Way: Thank Yourself, by Debi Ghate , Christian Science Monitor, 11/25/29) 

As you might notice, that narrative of individualism is dependent on the utter denial of connection, mutuality, compassion, and inherent rights of anyone and anything outside of the self. Even for folks who consider ourselves more enlightened and caring, most of us have grown up with some part of that narrative, unconsciously and involuntarily, and, like racism, still unconsciously hold some of these ideals, especially when we are feeling personally threatened. Right now, there are groups responding to the climate emergency by planning their individual protection plans, without regard to the larger community of life. It’s natural, in some ways, but is it the way we’d really like to respond as a culture? Is it even an effective model in the long term? 

What does gratitude have to do with this? When we open ourselves to grateful feelings, we actually notice all the people, beings, landscapes, energies, feelings, and ideas that come together to serve us as members of a larger community. The opposite of selfishness is not selflessness; it is compassion, connection, mutuality. Practices of gratitude help us to see, and feel seen, as a part of a larger whole, or, as Martin Luther King said it- “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

 I have found that the more grateful people are, the more generous they become. It’s a kind of mutual feedback loop that supports an ever-growing capacity for thoughtful and respectful relationships. This appreciation and generosity can lead to more care and effectiveness in organizing spaces, as well. 

The epidemic of the individualism of this time is a key factor in the deep loneliness of our culture. Gratitude is a pathway to belonging. 

 Gratitude subverts powerlessness and grows personal and collective power. 

There are entire cultures for which gratitude is the core practice for all parts of life. The connection one feels to life, to a spiritual experience, to community, grows one’s sense of belonging, but also one’s sense of power. Ojibwe activist Winona LaDuke said the following: 

“One of our people in the Native community said the difference between white people and Indians is that Indian people know they are oppressed but don’t feel powerless. White people don’t feel oppressed, but feel powerless. Deconstruct that disempowerment. Part of the mythology that they’ve been teaching you is that you have no power. Power is not brute force and money; power is in your spirit. Power is in your soul. It is what your ancestors, your old people gave you. Power is in the earth; it is in your relationship to the earth.” 

The deep resonant connection- to ancestors, to earth, to each other- supports our capacity to honor the creativity, wisdom, heart, and spirit within each other and ourselves. These forms of power are only available to us through the lens of mutual appreciation and an abiding sense of “enoughness” in the world. We strive, of course, to grow and gain skills, but our inherent sense of worth is not as fragile when gratitude reminds us of our belonging. This can be true in any community- neighborhoods, faith communities, families, workplaces, mutual aid groups- that consciously include gratitude into their culture. 

Gratitude subverts monoculture and grows diversity. 

A gratitude-based culture is naturally aware of the gifts of living on the planet, of the amazing diversity of life, landscape, and all that supports us to live. We can’t help but notice that the landscapes of our world thrive because they consist of diverse and mutually dependent organisms that, together, create a synergistic and often beautiful place for the support of life. In human culture, this diversity is not just about biology, but also diversity of experience, of ability, of creativity, of interest. In my workshops to support activists, I often talk about the fact that we can’t have a sustainable monoculture of activism, just as we can’t have a sustainable monoculture of agriculture. It’s in the acknowledgement of the necessity for a diversity of gifts, personalities, and skills that makes a movement successful. We aren’t all built to sit on the train tracks, nor should we be. It is in the divergent capacities and gifts where we have our strength. And, it is in the acknowledgement of that need for diversity, and welcoming of it, that grows and sustains movements. Our acceptance and gladness for each person’s offering is a kind of cultural gratitude that helps to shape and grow justice. Community gratitude practices, often including art and music, reinforce the beauty and mutual care of those working together. 

Gratitude subverts old patterns of oppression, fragility, and guilt, and grows humility, wholeness, and solidarity. 

We are in a time when the need for an interconnectedness of movements, an “inescapable mutuality”, is becoming evident to more people. The environmental justice movement, for example, is reshaping the organizational and philosophical landscape of the traditional environmental movement. This is a moment when leaders within these justice movements are making the connections between racism, classism, homelessness, pollution, climate chaos, and colonization skillfully and insistently.  Traditional, mostly white environmentalists are finally listening, striving to learn more, and address some of the cultural assumptions that have limited their understanding of these connections. 

It’s being a bumpy ride for all involved. 

As a member of a climate organization that is striving to evolve our mission and work in service to this moment, I’ve observed (and sometimes experienced) a fair amount of uncertainty, resistance, confusion, and anger through this process. White, mostly middle class folks in the organization are being asked to consider their lifelong indoctrination in a racist culture, and look at how we/they act it out, consciously or unconsciously.  It’s deeply uncomfortable to folks who are used to being seen as progressive and thoughtful. Other issues, like gender, ability, or class are being discussed. Sometimes folks don’t know how to respond to feedback about their behavior and assumptions. Staff and volunteers committed to support this transition are working hard to educate, help process, and particularly support people of color who are subjected to habits of white supremacy culture. 

As I travel on this path, both as a white person and as a team member working directly on this issue, I feel simultaneously humbled and inspired by the depth of connection this work is bringing me, and the depth of learning I still require to this task of growing my/our capacity to be in responsive community at this moment. I’m learning that mistakes are made, processed, and then we move forward. If I am challenged, or “called in” for some action related to my implicit racism, I am learning to be grateful for the opportunity, and for the intimacy that grows when we learn to get through those moments together with care. 

Gratitude helps me to grow my empathy for all involved in conflict, even myself. It helps me to see the big picture of systemic racism and power, without personalizing so much. It offers me the opportunity to experience some of the deepest feelings of whole-hearted solidarity with those who are learning and teaching beside me. I can feel myself acting less out of my fragility, and more out of curiosity and deep care.  

It’s been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as an activist. Composting my white fragility responses into curiosity, humility, and gratitude is the work of a lifetime, and work that makes me feel more whole. 

Radical Gratitude Practices 

So far, we’ve been exploring the whys of gratitude as it serves the world. Please note that there is likely a need for both personal and community practices of gratitude. In fact, the institutionalization of gratitude practices will inevitably grow trust, care, and well-being in your group. 

Now to the hows. 

I’m not actually going to give you a menu. There are a lot of menus for gratitude practices. And, acknowledging the uniqueness and diversity of folks, I’m offering you a model to create your own menu of practices, whether they are personal or community practices. Here are some pathways/qualities to think about as you concoct your version of radical gratitude. 

Radical Gratitude is 

Emergent- Gratitude arises in proportion to our openness to the moment. When we develop the capacity to pay attention what’s happening in our lives in the present moment, we are present to all the beauty of our world- birdsong, the wisdom of a friend,  the sweet presence of a sleeping pet. With each noticing, we can say “Yes…that…that…that...” to the beauty of the moment, the connection we feel to the world, and to our deep sense of thanks for the gift of life. This is true in both personal and political spaces. 

 Embodied, rather than just a cognitive process. 
 Instead of depending on our mind to “remind” us of what we are or should be grateful for, we can deepen the experience by allowing the experience of gratitude to move into our heart, our belly, even our arms and legs. Breath, movement, and intention come together to bring us into a state of experiencing a moment of wonder, of thanks, in a way that stays with us longer than mere thought. 

Empathic- Gratitude helps us connect to other ways of witnessing and being with each other, and is a catalyst for generosity, kindness, compassion, and solidarity. In both personal and public spaces, we can then grow our capacity to see and engage in a broader view of community with an open heart. 

Expressive- Shared moments of gratitude deepen and expands our relationships, and can be an active offering of blessing.  Additionally, gratitude can be a fuel for creative endeavors- art, music, movement- to ground, expand and share the experience with others. 

Ecological- Ecology is about the relationship between the larger world and us. Gratitude strengthens our sense of interconnectedness and belonging with all beings. Thus, our ground of support is held not just by other humans, but also by our relationships to all beings, landscapes, and the universe. 

Enduring- the practice of gratitude supports us for the ongoing story of our life, and the life of our world. It is available no matter what circumstances surround us.  This not about being grateful for difficulties, but about the capacity to find gratefulness as we navigate through difficulties. Who/what is there to help us through? What gifts do we have to offer in those moments? 

Empowering- Gratitude is a revolutionary tool to subvert the power of the consumer culture, and allows us to discern what we really have, what we really need, and who we really are. It supports a sense of sufficiency and capacity to offer ourselves in service to the world. 

As part of a larger exploration of these ideas, I’m interested in continuing the conversation with interested folks. Do you have personal or community practices that might fit into the above model? I’m collecting practices that go beyond the usual lists and expand the repertoire of regenerative practices. You are welcome to add your ideas in comments on this article, at the Radical Gratitude Project facebook page, or contact me at my website