Practicing an Attitude of Gratitude

5 min read

Gratitude begins as an idea, advances to practical action, and culminates in revising our identity and relationship to the earth.

Recovery from addiction, as well as from a wide variety of health issues and traumas, naturally fosters feelings of gratitude. But even deep gratitude tends to fade as we turn to the mundane tasks of daily life. People in recovery through the Twelve Steps are aware that maintaining an “attitude of gratitude” is important for remaining sober. Although the word “gratitude” does not appear in the Twelve Steps, Step Three involves a decision to receive the gift of caring and Step Twelve closes the loop by encouraging returning this gift to others in need.

The reciprocity of receiving and giving back is the essence of practicing gratitude. This reciprocity is beautifully described in Braiding Sweetgrass, by the Native American botanist and ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer[i]. Her poetic writing combines ancient stories from different Anishinaabe tribes with a detailed scientific understanding of how the world of plants feeds and is nurtured by their mother earth. All living beings are treated as persons in the way humans see each other. Wolves, nuthatches, and bees are all seen as people with homes and children. Humans are only one of many peoples, and all ultimately depend on plants as the sole life form capable of making food from sun, air, and water. In the process, plants feed oxygen into the air for all animals to breathe. Kimmerer’s perspective embeds humans in the vibrant web of life born from our earth. We are wholly dependent on the health of this web. Our own health and existence depend on the health and existence of this web, and yet we have fallen into unawareness of this relationship. Instead, we expropriated the role of master, turning all the gifts earth freely gives as mere commodities to be monetized. We live in an illusion of our mastery as we graze through grocery stores casually grabbing bits and pieces of plant and animal lives wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic (themselves products of ancient plants pressed into petroleum deposits). We act like children who sneak into our grandmother’s kitchen to steal all the cookies she baked unbidden for us, carelessly breaking the plate that held them.

There is no reason we would be able to recover from the brain changes caused by addiction, but sobriety is a freely available gift. So too is the air we breathe, clear water from natural springs, fruits, nuts, roots, and grains given to us by the earth. No human can invent and produce such gifts. Humans are newcomers on earth, wholly dependent on its freely given bounty. Gratitude begins with becoming fully aware of our dependence on these gifts. Like recovering alcoholics and other drug addicts, we need to “make a decision” to embrace the reality of our dependence on the natural world. We cannot exist outside nature.

Awareness is necessary, but not sufficient, for the fulsome practice of gratitude. There must also be reciprocity. We cannot take from the earth with only a mere “thank you” in return. We must also become active stewards by caring for the natural world that already cares for us. We must enter into a mutual relationship with earth. It is our home, and homes need maintenance and care. The embrace earth gives us must be returned by our embrace of the earth, just as recovery from addiction is maintained by carrying the message of sobriety to those still in need.

The earth is in need. It needs us to take our foot off the accelerator that is driving climate change. As Kimmerer points out, the maple trees that offer us such sweet syrup are needing to migrate further north, becoming refugees from their current home because climate warming is ruining their current homeland. We need to stop driving carbon into the atmosphere and begin nurturing plants that pull it back out of our air.

I have been thrown into turmoil over what I can personally do to practice gratitude for all earth has given me throughout my 78 years. Too blind now even to garden, how can I practice gratitude? What practical action is available? After some thought, I have made a decision to serve the songbirds I remember being so plentiful when I was young but have become so much rarer now. As a child I remember the golden finches, redwing blackbirds, Baltimore orioles, and bobwhites that sang through the woods. Without much vision now, I delight in the birds still chirping in my yard. I am installing a bath to give them water through the dry summer, feeders to invite them to dinner, and small houses to raise their children. I love these birds, so it is time to do something so they will love me back.

An attitude of gratitude starts small but leads to radical shifts in our relationship to the entirety of earth’s natural world if we practice reciprocity. It can lead to seeing the land surrounding us as our home, not as property we own. In Kimmerer’s words, those who immigrated to America must find a way to become indigenous to this land. We need to find our proper place in the web this land has spun. Receiving and giving are two sides of belonging.

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