In this season of Thanksgiving, I’ve been reflecting on the dark side of gratitude.

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that either. My usual musings tend to lead me down the path of embracing gratitude for all the ways that I am privileged in my existence. While that all still holds true, I’m also aware of how the emphasis on how we should embrace gratitude can also be detrimental to our physical and mental health. As always, I’m not suggesting that it needs to be either/or – I can hold both gratitude and…what’s the opposite of gratitude? A quick look at antonyms to gratitude will reveal words such as thankless, unappreciative, mean, rude, and even abusive.  Really? If I’m not grateful for something, it means I’m abusive?!

This expectation that we should be grateful for what we’ve been given is baked into social norms and throws a powerful blanket over systemic oppression, putting out the fires started by those who dare to show that they are disgruntled and dissatisfied with the status quo because they should be grateful for what they already have. If I’m conditioned to appreciate whatever I’m given, then there’s less risk for me to ask for more. So, if the needle ever so slightly flickers towards progress, should I be grateful for that? Should I be thankful and feel satisfied and tell myself, “At least something happened”? Should I be “grateful for small mercies”?

I don’t think so. I believe that it’s important to hold gratitude and still be able to ask for more without being reprimanded and shamed Oliver Twist style.

This past weekend would’ve been my Grandma’s 100th birthday. Having just celebrated my 50th birthday, I’m struck by the duality of experiencing time as simultaneously a blink of an eye and an eternity, while paralleled by how much the world has changed in the last 100 years and how little progress has been made. Grandma was born in an era when feet binding was only just being abolished in China, and yet her way of being in the world offered me a glimpse of the impact of small acts of rebellion and instilled an independent spirit in me. Grandma taught me the importance of gratitude in the simple things in life while simultaneously reaching for the stars and asking for more.

Thankfully (ha!), these lessons in a different kind of gratitude; lessons that emphasized resilience in the face of adversity while finding joy and gratitude in small moments, were reinforced throughout my childhood. My formative years were spent reading The Joy Luck Club, and Wild Swans, and learning about Qui Jin (dubbed as China’s first feminist) and Chinese railroad workers. I was also encouraged to learn about abolitionists, apartheid, and communism. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my reading material inspired me to critically assess, question, and challenge everything.

This year, at our Sharing Space with The HERD Conference, Elizabeth McCorvey delighted the community in regaling her experience of how she loves to say “YES!” to invitations to collaborate with me. What she didn’t share is that I have also witnessed and learned from her ability to use a simple and powerful phrase with clarity and grace. When confronted with a suggestion, comment, or situation that perpetuates any kind of oppression of marginalized people, her response is simply:

“No, thank you!”

These three words are powerful and potent in our quest to create a more inclusive space for all, and I am learning how and when to deploy them. In this season, when we are told that the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year, and often expected to tow the party line within family dynamics that are complex and painful, and meet the expectations of others as a way to show our appreciation, generosity, and above all, gratitude, I want to give space for those moments where I can say, “No, thank you” to dynamics that I don’t want to perpetuate while holding eternal gratitude for the freedom to do so. Above all, in this season, I am grateful to be in the company of those who are willing and able to hear my cry of “No, thank you” and respond with compassion and curiosity, and perhaps join my chorus with their own cries of “No, thank you” to systems that no longer serve them too.

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I’ve really struggled to find words this month to articulate the depth of pain and horror that we are witnessing in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I feel a responsibility and desire to name the atrocities and to stand against the onslaught against humanity, but everything that I write seems pithy and insincere. Not only because I don’t know what to say, but because I’m hyper-aware that I don’t know enough about the history behind the decades-long conflicts to say anything meaningful. I also recognize what a privilege that is.

I was eleven when I first became aware of the conflicts through Lynn Reid Banks’ book, One More River. I loved that book and re-read it many times. Through those pages, I was introduced to social responsibility and collectivism; the atrocities of war and the peculiarity of maintaining a semblance of everyday life amid horror; and that it’s possible to fall in love with people who are different. I remember asking my dad if there really had been a 6-day war between Israel and Arab nations, what the differences were between the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, and the Tao Te Ching (道德經), and – most importantly for me at the time – why were they all written by old men? But that’s a story for another day.

Right now, I’m aware that when I feel uninformed and ignorant, I get curious about the topic. I’ve spent the past couple of weeks gathering resources to share with others who may feel the same. I know that we have both Jewish and Arab members within our community who hold vastly different views on what is happening in their spiritual and physical homelands, as well as those who don’t belong to either culture who also hold strong and polarized opinions. I’m not here to argue either way. I’m also not offering a “let’s focus on humanity on both sides” stance. I’m here to acknowledge that I am ignorant and am learning and I see the pain and devastation. I’m here to say that I have students, friends, and colleagues who are in Israel whom I am desperately worried about. In my social circle, we have already heard of friends’ relatives who have died or gone missing. This is no time for sticking our heads in the sand and hoping it will fade away with the next news cycle like so many times before.

When I struggle to find my own words, I find it helpful to read the words from others. This poem touched me deeply and I want to share it with you.

Your Village

by Elana Bell*

Once in a village that is burning

      because a village is always somewhere burning


And if you do not look because it is not your village

      it is still your village


In that village is a hollow child

      You drown when he looks at you with his black, black eyes


And if you do not cry because he is not your child

      he is still your child


All the animals that could run away have run away

      The trapped ones make an orchestra of their hunger


The houses are ruin  Nothing grows in the garden

      The grandfather’s grave is there   A small stone


under the shade of a charred oak   Who will brush off the dead

      leaves  Who will call his name for morning prayer


Where will they — the ones who slept in this house and ate from this dirt — ?

For me, it’s the final line that is the most haunting. The aching uncertainty hangs heavily in the unfinished, unanswered question.

Where do you turn when you have no words?  Want more education on this complex topic? Here is a link to a Google doc that I’ve been updating with links to various articles and resources that I have found useful in my own continued education on the subject. I’m sharing in case you might find them helpful too.

*Elana Bell is a Brooklyn-based poet, educator, and facilitator of sacred rituals. She is the author of two books of poetry: Mother Country (BOA Editions in 2020) and Eyes, Stones (LSU Press 2012). The following poem is from Eyes, Stones, a collection that was inspired by interviews conducted in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and America. Listen to Elana Bell perform the poem here.

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