Considering Gratitude

The 1863 proclamation which created the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States – a time when many stop and consider gratitude – opened with this thought: “The year that is drawing to its close has been filled with blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.”  This acknowledgement of blessings from nature stands out to me because it was made during one of the darkest hours in American history as the Civil War ended lives, divided families, and destroyed acreage with no clear end in sight.  Was this a ploy to bolster optimism during a man-made catastrophe?  Maybe it offered a specific way of understanding gratitude as recognizing the good outcomes in life over which man exerts little control.20191216_081921

An article by scholar Jeremy David Engels got me thinking more about how gratitude can function in everyday life.  While researching his book The Art of Gratitude, he discovered that in many traditions the notion of gratitude is linked with the idea of obligation – as in owing a “debt of gratitude.”  Some practitioners of this go so far as to recommend that people record a ledger to remember the gestures that must be repaid.  Gratitude, in this conception, is like a calculation.  Your office mate brings lunch one day so you take note in order to reciprocate.  You send a gift to a family member and then expect some sort of similar acknowledgement.

Engels argues that this transactional approach to gratitude, which stresses indebtedness,  can become dangerous because “relationships cannot be calculated with numbers on a page” and might cause us to “miss out on what is most important.”  What is most important?  Engels proposes a different perspective on gratitude that emphasizes interconnectedness.  For example, if he says he is grateful for clean air that acknowledgement also recognizes the fact that all creatures need air to breathe and it connects living beings in the common pursuit of a basic necessity for life.  Additionally, he points out that threats to something like clean air or water cannot be solved independently but must be tackled collectively.  We all need one another to survive and this understanding can create opportunities to practice a community-oriented gratitude.  “Focus on what is necessary,” he writes and, “work together with others to make it possible for all to live well.”

20191216_082641I would like to add a third perspective on gratitude explicated from the Thanksgiving proclamation.  Being thankful can also be a vehicle for noticing the bounties of life, the moments that are fortuitous, the ways in which an individual or community has been blessed.  Highlighting the positive outcomes, especially those over which we have little control, can help us to remain grounded.  When we bask in the hubris of our human ingenuity, gratitude reminds us that there are forces greater than our own at work in our lives and our universe.  Source energy, God, Nature, Lady Luck: however one conceives of the presence of spirit, they all signify that there are events which occur that we cannot attribute to our own striving.  When those occurrences bend toward the positive, we can notice them through gratitude; when they offer struggle, we can use them as points of growth.

In a meditation group that I lead, one participant recently noted that she finds gratitude to be difficult.  This got me thinking about why one might grapple with being thankful.  Conceiving of gratitude as a ledger, could become stressful.  If one believes that gratitude must be constantly repaid, it could be overwhelming.  Viewing gratitude through a lens of connectivity could also be daunting.  Western culture tends to be rather individualistic so admitting the need for community could make gratitude seem complex or fearsome.  Using gratitude as a mode of recognizing the good in life, could also be troubling.  It means giving up the myth of human control and relinquishing the notion that meritocracy, or hard work, always leads to success.  Sometimes beneficial outcomes are more serendipitous, and not entirely related to human skill or talent.  But this runs counter to much of what we are taught about hard work and human capability.

Perhaps the Stoic philosopher Epictetus left us with one of the most practical visions of gratitude in his handbook for living.  A modern translation offers this interpretation of his words: “If you take a broad view of what befalls each person and appreciate the usefulness of things that happen, it is natural to give thanks to the Ultimate for everything that happens in the world.”  While it sounds logical, taking such a broad view is not easy.  But, Epictetus assure us, it will have rewards.  He says straightforwardly, “Practice having a grateful attitude and you will be happy.”

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I am grateful for the lovely trees I photographed on a walk while visiting South Carolina.  They made me feel connected to the environment, and the visual complexity of their array of shapes and angled branches brought me joy.  I felt honored to consider the many years of history they must have witnessed from their vantage points.  It was humbling to realize that I had nothing to do with their creation and, yet, they enhanced my experience of the walk greatly.  I can give back to them only by recognizing them here, fondly remembering, and offering thanks to Nature for their existence.

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Mindfulness at the Museum

Join me Saturday mornings from 10:00 – 11:00am for guided relaxation, breathing and silent meditation at the Hoboken Historical Museum (1301 Hudson Street).

Starting October 19 through December 2nd.  Cost: $10.

Sign up online or just walk in.

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Make time for Joy

 


This sounds almost frivolous in today’s world, yet reflecting on what brings us joy is the essence of wisdom in perilous times.  – Mark Matousek


During the warm months when the weather is nice and the days are long, it is especially easy to make time for joyful endeavors.  There is so much ugliness and strife that enters our lives daily, let’s not forget to bring some joy into our lives each day.  As Mark Matousek points out, the pursuit of joy is not frivolous but the essence of wisdom.  Indeed, it is necessary for our spirits and our bodies.  It’s a question worth pondering: what brings me joy?  Give it some thought, perhaps while listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A, which never fails to remind me that there is true beauty in this world.  And that brings me joy.

 

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New Short Story!

My short story “In the Zone” was recently a Finalist in the Diana Woods Memorial Creative Nonfiction Contest.

It is a story about a speech competition in which I competed in the tenth grade.  I was inspired to write it last year when I was studying global meditation traditions and learning more about the idea of being in the flow.  This story is about the first time I achieved that state of consciousness.challenger

The story is dedicated to my father, Marshall G. Swindall.

Read the story here.  I hope it brings some light into your day!

 

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Celebrating Paul Robeson in The North Star

A re-imagined version of Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star has recently been launched online for the twenty-first century.  In the spirit of Douglass’ advocacy for liberation, the new publication contains analysis of current events and historical perspectives on race and social justice issues.

Check out my recent featured article: “Celebrating Paul Robeson’s Legacy of Art and Activism.”

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The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World is out in paper back

upf coverNOW AVAILABLE IN PAPER!

The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anti-colonialism, 1937-1955
Lindsey R. Swindall
Original Price: $24.95
Discount Price: $18.00
Use Code AU319 online until March 31
The Southern Negro Youth Congress and the Council on African Affairs were two organizations created as part of the early civil rights efforts to address race and labor issues during the Great Depression. They fought within a leftist, Pan-African framework against disenfranchisement, segregation, labor exploitation, and colonialism.
By situating the development of the SNYC and the Council on African Affairs within the scope of the long civil rights movement, Lindsey Swindall reveals how these groups conceptualized the U.S. South as being central to their vision of a global African diaspora. Both organizations illustrate well the progressive collaborations that maintained an international awareness during World War II. Cleavages from anti-radical repression in the postwar years are also evident in the dismantling of these groups when they became casualties of the early Cold War.
By highlighting the cooperation that occurred between progressive activists from the Popular Front to the 1960s, Swindall adds to our understanding of the intergenerational nature of civil rights and anticolonial organizing.
Reviews:
“Adds much-needed texture to the growing historiography on African American protest politics and the global understandings of racism during the 1930s and 1940s.”—American Historical Review   
“Those wishing to explore the CAA or the SNYC or the connections between the U.S. South and the black freedom and anticolonial struggles will be glad that Swindall has helped enrich that understanding.”—Journal of American History
“A useful, well-researched reminder that the U.S. struggle for racial civic inclusion domestically and anticolonial fairness internationally was more ideologically and tactically diverse than popularly portrayed.”—Choice
“Provides a detailed examination of the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the Council on African Affairs (CAA) to situate these black-labor-left coalitions as part of the long civil rights movement.”—Journal for the Study of Radicalism

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King, Baldwin and Love

mlkjr-beyond-vietnam Upon contemplating Martin Luther King on this day set aside for his remembrance, I turn to one of his late speeches: “Beyond Vietnam” that was delivered in New York City a year before his death.  This is one of his most significant messages to the nation and the world; however, delivering it sealed his fate as a contentious figure.  He was maligned by many for his words that day.  Perhaps the vitriol directed toward him following this speech best illustrates the depth of the wound to which he was speaking.  Those who cannot love themselves recoil from the observation that love is the power that is most needed for transformation.


King’s words reverberate today:

“This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.”


The foundation of love is built on trust.  As James Baldwin has so piercingly observed of Americans in his essay “Nothing Personal”: “our failure to trust one another deeply enough to be able to talk to one another has become so great that people with these questions in their hearts do not speak them ….”  The toxic political environment and troubled social climate of today demonstrates the lack of trust between Americans and indeed people around the world today.  Let us – who believe in justice, truth and love – talk to one another.  Let us sow the seeds of conversation that might grow into trees of love which are rooted in trust. 

Social transformation is not solely the job of politicians or other leaders.  It begins with each of us having the courage to love ourselves.  That in itself could be the work of a lifetime.  It is a worthy effort.  Personal transformation is the first true step to social transformation.  As Baldwin reminds us: “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light.”  Finding that light and revealing it to the world is no absurdity.  It is what will save us.  Let us make it now, as King suggested so many years ago, “the order of the day.”

Read King’s entire speech here.

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