Posted November 21st, 2012 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Gratitude

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

So I’m thinking this morning about gratitude. Not thanksgiving, not giving thanks, but rather, gratitude, which is different.

Thank you for the favor. I give you thanks.


Sunrise over Lake Michigan

Gratitude is more than giving thanks; it is an orientation to life. It is a way of being. It is an approach to all things. It is a way to walk in the world.

Gratitude is a path.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this nation right now in thinking the idea of a Thanksgiving Day has lost its cultural meaning. Many families will spend precious time together, and it is a rare, even singular day now when for many of those families the center event is sitting at table and sharing a long celebratory meal. It is good to do this, for those who have families. But how do we expand our sense of family beyond the narrowly defined nuclear one to become inclusive of others not inside that enclosed nucleus, or to recover some sense of national or cultural meaning, bonds that hold us together beyond our small individual lives? We have become a tragically and dangerously fragmented nation.

Once we were village. Once our rituals meant something, were connected to something beyond us. Even the myth of the first Thanksgiving meal is centered in an idealized version of human bonds across cultural differences and tensions, across bonds of need in times of want. It was not centered on individual nuclear families, this supposed bedrock of our civilization, but on sharing beyond those small worlds into something larger, a sharing that crossed boundaries of cultures, meanings, traditions, and merged into a sense of common humanity.

Meanwhile, out in some asphalt parking lots, hundreds of people around my town are already camped out, living in tents, awaiting the opening of stores for their Black Friday shopping. And I can’t help but think that symbolically we are now more culturally bonded by our shared ritual of shopping and consumerism than by any leftover trappings of a national holiday based on the simple sentiment of giving thanks.

Morning companions

As someone trying to practice an ecological spirituality, it is also hard to avoid the reality of the vast destruction of millions of living sentient beings for the sake of a symbol – turkeys, millions and millions of them, most of them raised in wretched conditions, fed hormones to fatten them up to create big juicy breasts, and treated with antibiotics to keep disease from spreading through these wretched industrial poultry factories.

Which I guess means I am prepared to put a pall of gloom over these feasts. Yes, mostly this food is not good for us. Antibiotic-resistant disease spreads among us because of these practices. But I think what bothers me most of all is our careless disregard for our fellow creatures. Whatever I think of hunting for sport, I have even more disdain for a culture that purposefully brings life into being, causes that life to suffer, then slaughters that life with the same disregard.

Okay, back to gratitude.

I went down to the lake with my first cup of coffee this morning to watch the sun rise over the distant fog. I always do this with the expectation of reward, and always there is reward. For whatever nature has to offer, I give thanks. But more, I go with an attitude of gratitude already – for the gift of the sun that gives energy to this solar system, for its warmth and light. There isn’t a day that I am not swimming in that energy and light. It makes me; it keeps me alive; it gives sweetness to my tomatoes, even as I savor slowly the last from this year’s garden.

It is backdrop for everything else on this planet, yet we hardly give it our regard. It lights up the moon at night, and Venus and Jupiter.

Gratitude is the simple ongoing awareness and acknowledgement of all that provides us life and wonder and mystery and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Which is very different than the meaningless devouring of beings without thought about how they existed, or the utterly empty exercise of shopping, much less fighting one another, for the purpose of the meaningless consumption of goods, which takes a fierce toll on the planet for all the extraction, pollution, and waste that all this shopping will bring about.

So as not to overwhelm here with my cultural disdain, I won’t mention the tens of millions of living trees that will be cut to decorate our homes and other buildings. Did we give them a thought before we did this?

Which to me is the same attitude that intends to tear open a hole of mindboggling proportions (21 miles long, and a mile or two wide) through our north woods to extract iron ore to ship to China and India.

Tell me the difference.

See, if we go through life with an attitude of gratitude, it changes all our relations. It changes how we view the sentient and non-sentient beings with which, with whom, we share this planet. Do the boreal forests of Alberta have a right to exist even in the face of our voracious appetite for the oil tar sands that nature placed under the surface of those forests? Do they have that right even in the face of the human project of building and devouring and consuming to keep the global economic engine churning along?

I am not trying to ruin the holidays, but save them – for something deeper. Because, really, if our cheery holidays depend on these things, then they have become worse than meaningless.

Part of the ecological journey, besides addressing the truth of the human condition, is finding the new meanings for being alive, ones that are in sync with the balance and life-sustaining eco-communities of which we are a part, from which we emerged, in which we live and move and have our being. The way we do these holidays is not in sync, and in fact is destroying that balance, unraveling those communities.

First appearance

It was one thing to all want natural trees in a world of a few hundred million people – but billions? Do we adapt our expectations and sources of happiness to the reality of the planet? Can we? I love Christmas trees. I love the smell of them, especially the blue spruce of my childhood. But, do we rebuild homes along the coast with an ocean view, or do we change our expectations along with the changes we have wrought along the coasts and to our climate?

Do we know how to adapt to reality?

CO2 levels in the atmosphere reached an all-time record in 2011, and I don’t suspect that 2012 will not exceed that record. We are now at 390.9 ppm and rising. Most climate scientists say we must retreat to 350 ppm to keep the planet safe for human habitation. And as noted previously on this blog, all the recent research shows that we are headed for the high end of the climate models’ predictions for temperature increase this century – another eight degrees by 2100, which spells catastrophe.

How do we want to give thanks this holiday season? How do we thank this planet for what it has given us? But more, how do we begin to live into a deep gratitude, one that requires humility, acceptance of limits (which is part of the essence of a grateful heart), and deep change in the way we go about our daily lives?

This morning as I stood on a rock jetty watching the red sun emerge out of the fog bank over Lake Michigan, what I felt in my heart was gratitude, for it, for life, for that moment of being so fully alive. And I wondered all over again why we want to ruin this, what it is inside the human, not yet fully evolved, not yet a fully mature species perhaps, that doesn’t appreciate, or realize, that this is more wonderful than a new smart phone or LED screen or the latest Apple tech-toy.

No, I am not trying to spread gloom here, to be bleak. ‘Bleak’ is the world we have made.

What I would wish for us is that we recover gratitude and joy for the essence of things, for the simple things, for love and friendship, for community and sharing, for generosity and inclusiveness, for a new sense of the human living within a village of other sentient and non-sentient beings with whom we share the gifts of the Earth, of living Gaia.

I want joy. And joy comes from gratitude. And gratitude comes from a deep letting-go, from a deep humility. It comes from understanding that the world has changed since a handful of hungry colonists shared food with a group of indigenous people who lived here long before we Euro-Americans ever arrived. Sharing abundance means something different now, on a different planet living in a vastly altered reality fraught with planetary crises of all sorts.

Joy comes from gratitude. Gratitude helps us re-cherish the planet. And when we re-cherish the planet, we come to terms with the harm we are doing to it. Then, if we are really grateful, what wells up from deep inside us is this voice emerging from millions of years of evolution that whispers in our ears, in our brains, in our hearts‘stop doing so much harm.’

With gratitude for all of you, and for the sunrise, for the ducks, geese, buffleheads, mergansers, gulls, and heron with whom I shared it, giving thanks always for each day that I am alive amidst the raucous, wild, magnificent, terrifying wonder of it all.

Have a great weekend!


All photos: Margaret Swedish

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