I hooded my first graduate advisee this week; and I am so happy for him. My student worked hard for over a year; and as the date for his final draft submission approached, I was privileged to witness his growing excitement and pride. I felt my own growing pride. Over that year, I had talked about my advisee many times with my family, “going to a meeting with so and so again,” “so and so sent me an updated draft that I need to get to” etc., so much so that on the day of his defense my older sister said she was crossing her fingers for him and my brother asked me if I’d told him that they were rooting for him. I hadn’t; though clearly working with this man had touched me in a way that also touched them.
This is a privilege of being a teacher: to walk along the side, to journey with another while he (she/they) navigates his (her/their) own road, to see how far he (she/they) has come.
And I am so grateful for it.
This has been a year of ends and new beginnings for many people I know. One graduated. Another left a toxic PhD program to find a job that values his contributions and will compensate him accordingly. She’s starting her own business. We started Taekwondo. I got to be in an actual classroom again. After the constriction of the early COVID quarantine, I finally feel that the world—my world—is opening back up again. This has me thinking about gratitude and the paradigms through which we understand this concept.
As I’ve mentioned before, gratitude doesn’t always come easily to me. I wait for “the other shoe to drop,” so to speak. I also worry that if I hold on too tightly then I will crush or spoil the good that’s come my way.
I understand though, that gratitude is in part, a praxis—something you create as you enact or evoke it. I’ve read books and worked with journals that encourage a daily practice of gratitude, like writing down three things you are grateful for each day so that you can see and so reorient towards this disposition. The commencement speaker at my advisee’s graduation this week mentioned this same practice and its impact on his life.
Thinking about my experience with religious paradigms of gratitude, it occurs to me that I used to do something like this gratitude practice when I prayed to God at night as a child. Accept in that case, my gratitude was always suspect and subject to interrogation by my guilt. Did I tell God everything that I was grateful for? Did I forget something? Am I grateful enough? My list would go on and on, paralleled only by the list of people that I felt I also needed to pray for, as though forgetting one name or event would prove my ingratitude and selfishness. I frequently fell asleep while trying to complete my lists. But I needn’t have tried so hard, as I all too often found evidence for my selfishness in moments of “sinful pride”—being proud of my work, my swimming race, my wit—instead of praising God first for what “He” had done. Such was my distorted notion of gratitude fed by an abusive relationship to a patriarchal and punishing Father/Lord. This is not the paradigm that helps me to understand my life today.
I see my childhood religion through a critical feminist lens that helps me to understand how oppressive and dehumanizing constructions come to be deified. I see what gratitude is not. But how and where does feminism or feminist theology tell us what gratitude is? I’ll admit, this is difficult question for me to answer. Where is feminist “praise?” I know it exists—but perhaps, I was not drawn to its study or did not recognize it as I grieved the traumas of abusive faith.
I believe I’ve seen it here, on FAR, in the creative celebrations of our authors. Grieving and grief text, rememberings, can also generate gratitude. But if there is a text, a “feminist theology of gratitude,” that you would like to recommend, I would appreciate your comment as well.
The text that stands out in my memory is Emilie Townes’ Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope (1993) in which Townes considers the legacy of Ida Wells-Barnett. In this book, Townes doesn’t idealize Wells-Barnett. She is candid about the activist and reformer’s strengths and weaknesses; but Townes also remembers this woman as a resourse for justice and hope in all her messy humanness. This paradigm of gratitude asks for honest appraisal and appreciation of strength; an honesty that cuts through the performative quality of my childhood faith. Townes also seeks out that strength; suggesting that yes, gratitude is something we must orient ourselves to find, but can only find by really looking.
I painted a picture Pusheen the Cat and her mom with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s True Love (1997) to hang on my daughter’s bedroom wall. The quotes reads, “Dear One, I see you and it makes me very happy.” This is a paradigm for gratitude that, I want to say, I can understand; but it is more accurate to say that it takes me over… two years since I hung the picture and these words still take me over. The words are true; and so, I am grateful and so is my daughter when we read it together. The mantra is about really seeing—really seeing the truth. Like I saw my student and my own role as a teacher—the gifts this role provides. Like I can see how much my friend’s new job will help him create a safer space for he and his family. Like I can see the changes in my body since starting Taekwondo.
I have not given up on the idea of gratitude as an action, though I try to act without “going through the motions.” I practice. I practice because it doesn’t always come naturally to me, because I’d rather protect than feel the vulnerability, the possibility, that gratitude generates. But as I practice I see; which makes me want to practice some more.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.
One thought on “Gratitude”
Gratitude I believe is a form of Grace – one can open the door – but then it’s up to that which is bigger and older than we are – I call that power Nature….