The shape of gratitude
“She felt herself ill-used and unfortunate, as did her father; and they were neither of them able to devise any means of lessening their expenses without compromising their dignity, or relinquishing their comforts in a way not to be borne.” —Jane Austen, Persuasion
I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude the past few days, which is coincidental with the Gratitude Day holiday—a holiday that happens to be my favorite purely because it traditionally contains zero pressures with regards to consumerism or having to Make Things Magical (see: Easter Bunny and Santa), but every year I wish more that a national holiday could be made with the same food intentions but unrelated to the story we were told in school while choosing whether to make a Pilgrim hat or Indian headdress. I grew up in the 1980s in the U.S. There was no nuance when it came to colonial and Native American history. I am glad that my kids can come home from fifth grade and tell me that Columbus was a jerk and they don’t understand why anyone is meant to celebrate him.
That gladness is relevant to my non-Thanksgiving-related pondering over the question of gratitude. What are we grateful for, vs. glad about? And what demands of gratitude do others make upon us?
I recently finished reading Patrick Wyman’s history book The Verge, about the years 1490-1530 (culminating in the Sack of Rome), and while I didn’t find it nearly as satisfying or well thought-out as his Tides of History podcast, it did have a lot of information about Christopher Columbus’s navigational skills, the world of mining and oppression that shaped Martin Luther, how the money-lending and banking activities of Jakob Fugger aka Jakob the Rich enabled the Spanish King Charles I to buy votes enough to secure his position as Holy Roman Emperor (I think it was that Charles; there were a lot of names and dates and battles and principalities crammed together in short spaces and I often lost track), and how European monarchs as well as Ottoman sultans of that period were expected to make war.
Mostly that last. It was hard to grasp the defining narrative of the nine human biographies that shaped the book’s chapters, but it seemed to boil down to finance. How finance was created, how it was funded, and how it enabled to success or failure of war as well as the merchant activities that linked the European continent together, and with England; and how it underwrote the ventures that led to massacres and slavery in North and South America.
Finance (and its relationship to wealth) is a slippery thing, one that I’ve never understood very well and I’m afraid this book didn’t help. But it did remind me how much these systems are entwined with property, conquest, rebellion, subjugation, and (self-) entitlement. At several points while reading the book I was reminded of writing an older piece on Maurice Minniefield and the entitlement of American gentry.
Entitlement warps humans’ relationship with gratitude. Entitlement tells you that there’s some law of nature saying if you own something (or someone), you earned it, no matter how it was procured. And if you share even a little, then others should be grateful.
I’m not sure what that emotional relationship is, but it’s not gratitude. I am grateful for the snow-crisp day we just had, for my family and friends, grateful for the trees around and people in my community who are doing real work.
There’s a lot of research on gratitude at this point and how good it is for the human brain. And there’s a lot to be grateful for in many of our lives, certainly in mine. But to be forced into gratitude, or to be told to be grateful even when the crumbs of generosity are scraped from a banquet crafted by injustice, doesn’t seem like a healthy thing. It seems telling that two synonyms for gratitude are obligation and indebtedness.
What is the word, then, that I’m looking for? I am glad that some things have happened, that some are possible; to be grateful for them cheapens the word and the gifts it brings to us as fully living beings. Maybe “glad” is it. Or maybe there’s some other word out there that I haven’t yet come to. I’d be grateful (truly) for suggestions.
Some stuff to read or listen to:
Someone sent me the new Land Grab podcast, about the roots of Montana’s housing crisis and how they “lie deep in Montana’s self mythology.” Much of the hosts’ work is based on K. Ross Toole’s Montana history lecture series, which I’ve linked to before but it’s really worth revisiting if you ever have the time. There are only a couple of episodes so far; I’m curious to see if the hosts will find their way through the thicket of mythology and the narratives of exceptionalism.
This piece on Medium by a high school biology teacher really stuck with me, in part because so much of the narrative twist relies on the role she plays as a trusted teacher. I don’t want to give it away; you’ll just have to read it: “I took a red marker and wrote the phrase in question on the board: “There is a small, tear-drop shaped bone in your heart that regulates blood flow. I asked the class, ‘Is it true?’”
Anthropology professor Karen L. Kramer writing in Sapiens about the child-rearing practices she observes in the communities she works with says we have education all wrong: “While children freely range in and out of the adult spaces, they have an autonomous social life that they create among themselves. Working and playing in mixed-age groups embeds social learning in everything else children do. What children learn from their peers is how to establish social order: organize among themselves, share responsibilities and rewards, engage in healthy competition, and develop the capacity for tolerance, coordination, and personal initiation. In short, how to become a successful participant in society.” Which reminded me a great deal of developmental psychologist' Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn and the mental health consequences of taking away children’s need for movement as well as educational autonomy—short message is: children need to play.
A trio of sleep/cognition researchers writing in Aeon about the exciting new world of people want to inject advertising into your dreams: “Ultimately, the key question at hand isn’t necessarily whether or not dream advertising can influence people’s behaviour (it can) or if large-scale sleep-related advertising is cost-effective (still unclear), but rather if we, as individuals and as a society, think powerful marketers and companies should even be allowed to collect massive datasets on the workings of our brains during sleep, let alone to exploit or manipulate them.” Yay.
Also in Medium’s OneZero, Cory Doctorow writing about Apple’s right-to-repair reversal: “Never forget: the war on repair is really a war on the public interest. Companies have a strong preference for you to organize your affairs to maximize its shareholder benefit, even if that comes at your personal expense.” This is kind of a big deal, and comes on the heels of movements like the one by farmers to get John Deere to let them repair their own tractors.
The most recent episode of Vaccine: The Human Story was a beautiful reminder both of compassion, and of the importance of trust in human societies. The podcast is about the history of smallpox and its vaccine, and this episode covers the birth of the anti-vaccination movement in 1800s England. The host relates the resistance to lack of trust in government by reminding listeners that this was the same British government that approved the 1819 Peterloo massacre in which cavalry charged 60,000 peaceful protesters asking for voting rights and representation reform: “It is perhaps the greatest tragedy of this story that the miracle of vaccination was so mishandled by authoritarian government . . . the smallpox vaccine became associated in the minds of the very people it could help most with power, control, and subjugation.”
After hearing that I’d been up hunting in the Sweetgrass Hills, an old family friend sent me a link to the piano music of Hi-Line resident and composer Philip Aaberg, whom I’d never heard of before but subsequently spent Thanksgiving Day listening to while cooking. It seemed fitting, somehow.