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.