Gratitude's Problematic Magic

Gratitude's Problematic Magic November 23, 2016

I love the holiday of Thanksgiving. I do.

I recognize, and not just on the fourth Thursday of November, that the nation of the United States has been and is built on murder/genocide, enslavement, and oppression much more than it is or has been on the best aspirations of its leaders. And that even the aspirations of those leaders, overwhelmingly white men, have been limited by their social locations.

I acknowledge that indeed the Patuxet and Wampanoag peoples celebrated with pilgrim Separatists from England. And I acknowledge that the genocide of indigenous people on this continent may be the most devastating in history.

All of that carries weight and truth and awareness in my mind and body. It is part of my history, especially as someone benefiting from white supremacy, someone whose forebears were here in the 17th century.

And my individual sense of personal history speaks to me, as well. I come from a family that gathers in others the way you might choose flowers in a meadow. Yes, blood and the ties of marriage and adoption are thicker than water, especially on my mother’s side. (She has eleven brothers and sisters, as did her mother; her father had eight.)

But family has always meant more to me than biology or even formal adoption.

four children on a porch swing, all white, all laughingMy family includes my nephew’s mother and her mother, my former roommates, my brother’s former roommates, beloved friends near and far (even ones with whom I am no longer close), the little boy who grew up two doors’ down, longtime friends of my parents… I have a huge family. And Thanksgiving is the holiday that most reminds me of it. It is the holiday on which I am most grateful for my huge, sprawling family.

How do we hold all that needs holding in our awareness? How do I celebrate and yet honor what has been done in the name of a country attached to my name if I say, “I am Rev. Catharine Clarenbach, and I am a US citizen.”?

You can see that I have a beef with gratitude. (perhaps this week it is a turkey? Sorry…)

I should say I have a beef with mandatory gratitude. No one should ever try to guilt someone into gratitude, insist that they celebrate this week’s secular holiday in a particular way, or suggest that gratitude is the only way to “spiritual evolution.”

Furthermore, who am I to tell you to be grateful? I don’t know about the circumstances of your life!

Possibly well-meaning people tell adoptive parents, “Your child must be so grateful to have you,” when the well-meaningers know nothing about the family dynamics and all the losses inherent in adoption. People say, “You should be grateful to live in the greatest country in the world!” when they have never stepped outside our borders or lived in daily oppression. Parents tell children, “You’re ungrateful and selfish,” when they have no idea what’s happening inside the children’s bodies or minds.

Obviously, not everyone does these things. But there are plenty of examples of just this kind

Telling another that they must be grateful or even what they should be grateful for is just not appropriate. It’s just not. And indeed, I am here only to speak about my own experience. And that is the key to the lock of gratitude.

I do try to make gratitude part of my daily practice. Why? After all, resting on my laurels could feed complacency, no?

I find writing gratitude lists helpful.

I write them not to nurture complacency, but rather to encourage hope. In this shifting political climate, I find hope more necessary than ever. I have written in my blog lately about love, hope, and faith, as well as about spiritual practices involving writing, including gratitude spiral-bound notebook with brilliantly colored autumn leaves scattered along the edges

A gratitude list encourages me to think. I do not write the same things every day, though there are

people, relationships, conditions for which I am grateful every day. I have written about the water protectors at Standing Rock, my fireplace, my wife, our cats and their funny ways, my yoga class, and my red coffee press. I have written about the Black Lives organizers in and outside the Unitarian Universalist tradition, the Pacific Northwest climate (for real!), the joy of my mother, peace roses, and the physical health and prowess of my nephews.

Gratitude moves me.

Gratitude moves me with the desire to be of service, to gather people into my blessed life. Acknowledging my blessedness causes the desire to be a blessing to bubble up.

And that is magic, is it not? The act of changing consciousness at will? It is prayer. It is allowing ourselves to be changed by the God Herself working through our hearts. It is psychological technique. It is changing our minds by changing our actions.

It is magic.

And magic is what I, at least, am about. How about you?

figure standing with arms outretched silhouetted against green-blue-and-black, star-studded, nebula-appearing skyIn this time of needing love, gratitude, and hope, I invite you to a virtual retreat on December 17th in preparation for the Northern Hemisphere winter solstice. Going into the Dark will include storytelling/listening, meditation, sharing-as-you-wish, and a communal sense of gratitude and concern for the season and one another.

May we be grateful as we are able. May we be aware. May we act. May we rest.

May we make magic.

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