Gratitude as a Political Practice

Gratitude lists have become something I attempt to create every so often. Once I even tried to write a gratitude list every day for thirty days. Didn’t succeed, but I appreciated my own attempt. I first learned about gratitude as a tool for reducing resentment, especially resentment towards someone I believed had me on their personal hit list.

My first attempts at generating a gratitude list failed. My cynical attitude poisoned these early attempts. “What good is a *&!% gratitude list when he/she wants to fire me/discriminate against me” et cetera et cetera. I had convinced myself that gratitude could in no way alleviate my suffering. I falsely believed that the external person generated my suffering.

Imagine my surprise when, after years and years and years of making gratitude lists, I found my suffering lessened. I blew my own mind when I realized that the people I had initially believed made me suffer, had stopped doing so. And here’s the weird part: they had not changed their behavior at all!

Albert Camus Quote-1-Love

Repeatedly the world has failed me. So have people, again and again and again. People – strangers and friends – have said horribly nasty things to me about my transition. I still fear sharing my history with new people. The E.R. still terrifies me. I fear being exposed. But I have now come to understand the my own reaction to these comments and imagined scenarios frightens me more.

So in my gratitude lists I try to thank the people who I believe have harmed me. Some of them have truly made me a better person. How? I learned that I agreed with their assessment at some level! How do I know that I agree with them? Well, I have had experiences where people say things about me that I know in my heart aren’t true. I have just nodded in an okay-thanks kind of way. I know what they said is not true about me, even though they said it about me. But those people who said things I believed in my heart, even just a little bit?

If someone says “You’re not a real man!” That sets me back. Quite a lot sometimes. Mostly because I believe at some level that is true. Then I make it worse by stinging myself over and over again by running the comment through my mind about two trillion times over a 24-hour period.

If anyone else treated me the way I have treated myself, I would have gotten rid of them along time ago. (hat tip to Cheri Huber for that one!)

Gratitude eases this self-hatred and resentment and fear. As a political practice I have added people like George Bush to my list. I’ve also added people who have attempted to dismantle collective bargaining rights and people who want to deny my marriage. These actions still don’t sit right with me. But gratitude does some amazing things:

As I think about all the things I am grateful for – Ms. H. or a bucket or Moxie, for example – I relax, breathe easier and can live in the present moment, even for just a breath.
As I think about how we elected George Bush or that Obama signs off on executions of U.S. citizens without due process or that a man beat a one-year-old boy over a period of hours and murdered him, I try to add them to my gratitude list.

My gratitude cannot revive that murdered child or make Obama stop his death squads, but it keeps me whole and collected. In doing so I touch my own pain and a deep well of vulnerability. My veneer of cynicism and rage falls away to expose the truth: people harm one another and we harm ourselves, all the time. Gratitude splits me open. I touch my own constant vulnerability.

Gratitude splits me open and teaches me how much hate and vitriol I have generated in my short, insignificant life. How does such action differ from those whose words hurt me? Working for political change from this openness of gratitude, I can at least see my opponent as another human being instead of a label or object. In the process gratitude lets me retain my humanity.