I am hovering between two disparate states of political and personal existence. On the one hand, I need to take some quiet time to rest, to gather my strength, to remember that without a solid base of self-knowledge and spiritual groundedness, I am not very much use to anyone. Sapped strength is precarious. On the other hand, I find myself flooded with a seething anger at the power imbalances of the world, especially with regards to the shameful and disgusting exploitation of others by the financial and governmental powers that be. How is it that we live in a world where Kim Kardashian can spend 10$ million on a wedding and CEOs get billions in bonuses during a recession, but students at inner-city schools in Vancouver are hungry and shoeless and American citizens have to debate whether or not they should go to the ER during a health crisis, lest they become bankrupted by the cost of medical care?
In other words, how do I foster gratitude for my own wealth and comfort, yet acknowledge that my lot in life is relative to absolute poverty and unimaginable wealth? I’m certainly not one of those who believes that true happiness can be gleaned from a smile and a happy song in one’s heart. In fact, I believe it’s important that we criticize these messages from the self-help and gratitude industries, whose proponents posit spiritual fulfillment and self-acceptance as the true global crisis of the age. These are arguments that conveniently elide Marx’s insistence that sensuous life is necessarily related to one’s means and modes of production, and our historical and political positions.
Don’t get me wrong: I acknowledge that in many ways, pain is pain, and that financial security or political freedom does not exempt us from feeling the whole range of human experience. The loss of a father, the loss of a pregnancy, self-hatred, depression, general ennui, existential crises: these events DO profoundly change us and can shatter our whole understanding of the world and of ourselves, regardless of our race, class, or gender. And we should, given our various means, seek assistance and understanding: compassionate friends, therapy, trips to the countryside, medications…whatever is it that works. We should cultivate gratitude in the present moment. Today, it is a gloriously sunny fall day, and I’ve just come back from a trip to the grocery store and a lovely little drive around the neighborhood. I have enough food to eat. I have a car. I have a home to live in. I can indulge in a silly purchase of Justin Bieber mini nail-polishes. I have a heart that is beating. I have eyes that work. I am so fortunate, my God, I am fortunate.
But my gratitude and happiness must never come at the expense of my ability to act in the world. Gratitude – truly radical gratitude – is never complacent or static. It is not a convenient dialectical synthesis that seals off meaning and action.
Indeed, the more grateful I am for my life, the more I feel held to account, held to responsibility: the narrow scope of interrelatedness brought on by discontent and wallowing in many of my own struggles is forced wide open. I often find myself so blinded by the harsh light of this world that I wish to retreat into the cool blanket of my own misery.
But in this light, O, there is such wonder, such paradox, such joy and devastation, such agony and bliss, such injustice and such fierce wrath.