Thursday, April 19, 2007
The Vulnerability Of Gratitude
In my last post, I wrote about how fun it was to participate in Step It Up gatherings last weekend. But I didn't say too much about how I actually used the opportunity to talk with a group of kids and parents about climate change.
I assumed that since all the gathered people were dedicating their Saturday morning to a rally, they were already convinced that climate change is real and serious and needs dramatic action; so I didn't say much at all about how the climate system works, the signs of climate change we are already seeing, or the technical solutions that we could draw upon to address it.
The organizers had also urged me to not thrust too much gloom and doom on all the children in the audience; a need I was feeling with enhanced sensitivity since my own two daughters were in the audience. I also knew that other speakers were going to talk about everything from the political moment to compact fluorescent light-bulbs.I knew that most of the crowd was going to walk to the nearby Dartmouth College Green to hear more speakers and visit informational tables and booths. In other words, they were going to have plenty to listen to and learn from.
With all this in mind, I arrived with the goal of giving them time to talk to each other rather than listen to me, and I focused on two themes that I felt pretty sure wouldn't be repeated by others in the day's program.
The first one was gratitude. I talked about how climate change is making us aware of services the Earth has always been providing us, but that we are becoming conscious of those services only as we so overtax them that they begin to falter. This was the first time I talked about gratitude in a climate talk so explicitly, and it was more than a little unnerving to start right out with it, while kids were fidgeting and people were coming in and out of the room. But driven by my sense that one of the most important things I have to learn from climate change is how to be a grateful recipient of the Earth's gifts and how to talk openly about those gifts with others, I launched in anyway, not all that gracefully or articulately, but with determination.
I was rewarded with one of those moments that graces groups from time to time. As I started to talk about gratitude all the fidgeting and whispering suddenly stopped. There was a stillness and collective intentness that I wish I had been better prepared to use. What seemed to bring this stillness forward were these words:
"I imagine that all of you have had something that was very precious to you that you lost, or that you almost lost, and the losing or the almost losing was what made you realize how much you loved and appreciated whatever it was. Climate change is something like this, an experience that can help us realize how much we love and care for our home the Earth."
The moment passed pretty quickly, and when I asked people to think about and then share what they were grateful for from the Earth there was another one of those moments that graces groups from time to time: a moment of awkward silence. I hadn't done what was needed to make the group safe enough for people to share what they were grateful for. We hadn't introduced ourselves (too many people, not enough time) and hadn't developed a feeling as a group. Five minutes into my presentation (the first of the morning) we were still a bunch of people coming to an event, not a group. In retrospect I think it would have been much better if I had asked people to turn to their neighbor and share their thoughts rather than asking for people to speak them to a group of close to one-hundred people.
I learned something important from this awkward silence: to share their gratefulness for life and the Earth is an act that makes people vulnerable.
This is something I've known for a long time about vision - that in this culture it is scary to speak up for what you really want for fear of being laughed at or called naive or unrealistic or a dreamer. But until this moment of awkward silence I hadn't thought about expressing gratitude as an act that could make people vulnerable. It makes sense to me though, in this culture where we are so conditioned to feel as though we don't have what we need (that sweater, that car, that pair of shoes) we don't have much practice at expressing gratitude for what we already have been given. We don't have much practice seeing our gifts, feeling our appreciation, and certainly not talking about those gifts and feelings publicly.
I find a few theories forming in my mind:
1. Connecting gratitude to climate change is important and has the potential to touch people.
2. Cultivating the practice of speaking one's gratitude publicly is an act of courage and an possibly an act of social change. Like speaking a vision, speaking gratefully is rare and is a gentle push against the assumption of the industrial growth society.
3. Building people's capacity to speak about gratitude takes more planning and intentionality than simply asking the question: what are you grateful for? And it requires the facilitator/leader to have done her own work at being uninhibitedly grateful.
I'm eager for the next chance to weave gratitude and climate change together, and also eager to learn from the experience of others with more experience at drawing out people's expressions of gratitude. What are the key pre-conditions that allow it?
I'll end these thoughts with those questions, and save my observations about the second theme of my presentation - vision – for another time.