This post was sponsored by Storey Publishing. All opinions are my own. Our sponsors help us to pay our staff and to keep feminist media independent!
Storey Publishing publishes thoughtful and heartfelt non-fiction books that are absolutely perfect for this time of year. In this time of gratitude and reflection, I can think of no better book than Wake Up Grateful: The Practice of Taking Nothing for Granted by Kristi Nelson. If you’re looking for a book to give to a loved one this holiday season, this should be at the top of your list!
I had the honor of interviewing Kristi recently and am overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of the time and honesty she shared with me. If you love this interview, check out her book!
Renee Powers: “Not dying changed everything” is one of my favorite first lines of any book ever written. Can you share a brief overview of your journey and what inspired you to think deeply about living gratefully?
Kristi Nelson: The week of my 33rd birthday, after nine months of increasingly debilitating illness, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer that had metastasized to my spine. Nearly nine months of aggressive treatment ensued, after which I was left to face the likelihood of recurrence and a less-than-promising prognosis.
Most of my friends in their early 30’s were living the life-stage as they were meant to – as though the future unfurled endlessly before them with the promise of careers, travel, marriage, a home, children, and plenty of time to check items off their bucket list. For my peers, being in their 30’s was the time for defining and fulfilling dreams, solidifying plans, and making mature commitments and investments for the future. For me, it became a time of seeing and accepting the impermanence of everything, including my own life.
It may sound cliche or implausible, but it was in facing the prospect of my death that I came alive as I never had before. After 18 months, when I finally finished treatment and was set free from the confines of hospitals, pain, and grueling side effects, the everyday things I had taken for granted before I got sick were more awe-inspiring and breathtakingly wondrous than I could have ever imagined. Nothing felt routine anymore. I noticed things around me as if for the first time. Having a body felt like a miracle. The appreciation I felt for people was epic. Not sure how much more time was mine, I felt grateful for most everything every day…especially the gift of time and waking up to another day.
It would stand to reason that this “awakened” experience of life would be challenging to sustain as life kept unexpectedly unfolding…and it was. But waking up to life every day as an unexpected gift established a felt-sense of well-being and joy in me that I could remember and to which I was drawn to return. I “got it” that this experience of gratefulness could be available through an intentional practice of remembering to take nothing for granted. With practice, I developed the spiritual musculature of perspective that helped me reconnect with awe and wonder, and to feel the privilege of all the moments that I am alive…even – and especially – the challenging ones. This is how not dying came to change everything for me. I got a second chance at treasuring the life I “get” to have.
RP: What is the difference between gratitude and gratefulness?
KN: Gratitude gets a lot of hype these days. With all its known benefits, It’s become something we want to “get,” like happiness. We know it feels good to be grateful but unless things incessantly go our way and life unfolds exactly as we want it to, gratitude is going to be very hard to come by. And for good reason. Life is not built on a promise of getting everything we want. It can be challenging and painful. And there is so much in life that will break our hearts.
Gratitude – as we understand it – waits for something good to happen. It’s a feeling and a reaction to things outside of us. It’s fleeting and highly conditional. It loves a string of green lights and a prime parking spot with money on the meter. Gratefulness is greater than that. It is a proactive approach to life and a way we can orient ourselves when we take nothing for granted; when we do not take life itself for granted. It is robust enough to be present with us in all of our moments. When gratefulness is how we orient to life, it builds up our reserves to help us navigate inevitable hardships. It allows us to appreciate the value of the yellow and red lights in life, and to better learn from everything that happens.
RP: “Stop. Look. Go.” seems to be gratefulness theory in practice. How can this practice apply to our activism?
KN: We are all at our best and most effective in life when we are intentional about our actions; when our actions follow from connecting with our most deep-seated values and hopes for our lives and the world – when we can truly own our actions. I do not know anyone who does not benefit from slowing down and pausing in this regard. Even full-stopping. A pause allows for centering and consideration, and what I believe we will discover is that we can think far more creatively from this place, in a more collaborative and connected way. A truer way. I love to say that stopping fosters a sense of presence, and everything meaningful in life flows from being present. And once we are present, we are able to look around us for what warrants our attention – both those things that need to be changed and also those things that simply beg to be noticed for their amazingness. We need to be attentive to both of these areas of life and fill up both of these wells inside of us in order to move forward – to “go” – with energy that will make a positive difference as we move through the world. Simply noticing what is going wrong will woefully deplete us and I find myself paralyzed sometimes unless I also fill myself up noticing the amazing things that make life worth living…and loving…those things and people on behalf of whom I want to be an activist. There is no shortage of cause for outrage about so much that is happening in our country and around the globe right now. More than ever, in times like these, it makes abundant sense to me to pause, to get clear and connected, to nourish our hearts, and only then to act.
RP: As someone raised Catholic but no longer practices, I still have a lot of respect for the ritual and wisdom of the institution, particularly the mystery of faith. You devote a lot of pages to mystery. What is your relationship to mystery and how does it inform your gratefulness?
KN: My family did not identify as religious or go to church. I was raised by parents who were activists against the Vietnam war, active for women’s rights, active on behalf of civil liberties and justice. And I followed right along, getting arrested for civil disobedience at a nuclear power plant and then Seneca Women’s Peace Encampment before I had turned 25 years old. This is such a profoundly proud and important part of the formation of who I have become in life. And, as I grew older, I came to miss something that I identified as a more spiritual sense of life, an experience of life that transcended the tangible. I fell in love with the natural world, poetry, ritual, meditation, psychology, philosophy, love – things that pointed me deeper within myself and to what is transient. Somehow in this process, I came to find that the things I could not fully know, explain, or understand were some of my strongest connections to life. But using terms like the unknown, unpredictable, uncontrollable, uncertain…these powerful forces were all defined as an “absence” of something important, things to resist or be afraid of. I found that instead of the absence of things that were supposed to make me feel secure in the world, I could relate to the presence of mystery in a way that made it feel expansive and nurturing. I have continued to find that deepening my relationship to all that is mysterious and surprising about life helps me to be more curious, to feel more wonder, and to be more grateful.
RP: You write, “Our world awaits your heart’s full employment, not its perfect composure.” Our striving for perfection holds us back from working for positive change and society is worse because of it. Can you share an example of a time you waited for all the stars to align before you decided to act? How did that turn out and what do you wish you had done differently?
KN: It is hard to think of many specific examples of this, but I know it is true that I can get perfectionistic and then sometimes get frozen about taking action because of it. The thing that comes to mind first is that I fell in love with a woman in my 40’s after having been married and with men for most of my life. This was 20 years ago and there were a lot more closeted people and many reasons to “play it safe” instead of “coming out” in those days. It took me quite a while before I felt enough “perfect composure” to take the professional and personal risks to share my choice more publicly. Even though I could justify this lag-time because I wanted to wait and see what would happen with my specific partner and with my sexual orientation more generally, I know that I held back because of my lack of courage. When I did start taking strategic risks to be more public about being in love with a woman, it was always a very powerful experience and my courage was reinforced each time that I could feel the ripple effect and the heart-opening difference it made to those around me. This has often made me wish that I had been more courageous and more of a groundbreaker earlier in my process.
RP: You reframe the Golden Rule to be the Grateful Rule. Can you share an example of what you mean by this, especially how it can help us have challenging conversations?
KN: When we “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” it can certainly awaken our more generous consideration. But it can also motivate us myopically with a kind of self-referential blindness at the center of our choices. When you treat other people the way that you want people to treat you, you can easily miss the mark of offering what would be most meaningful for them. Offering something that meets the needs of another person requires sincere inquiry and deep listening for what emerges from that level of engagement. It requires responsiveness, not our projections and assumptions. This is important in any kind of activism or philanthropy as we so often do for – and give to – others what we think they need or should need rather than what might truly be needed. There is a kind of intimacy that we avoid when we operate from the Golden Rule because the most meaningful connections arise from a place of humility, curiosity, and engagement. This is why I favor the Grateful Rule and “do unto others as they would have you do unto them” because it better acknowledges and honors our very real, important differences, and therefore actually has the chance to make a very real and important difference. Whenever we are in difficult circumstances and/or conversations, it makes a lot of sense to ask questions that will help you to understand what the other person needs most in the moment and how they would define a successful resolution to the situation. When things are difficult and I have a lot of available attention, I like to ask questions that help me to know how the person I am with knows that they are being heard, respected, understood, or loved. That way I am not sending lots of messages trying to convey these things – from my perspective and according to what would make me feel these things – and never successfully helping them to feel what will help to improve the situation.
RP: What is radical about gratefulness? Alternatively, what makes gratefulness radical? I think these are two different questions and am curious how you interpret them!
KN: I love this question and I am so glad you asked it! There are many ways that I think of gratefulness as a radical way to orient to life. What makes it radical is that it purposefully flies in the face of all of the messages we receive in our culture that we are not enough as we are, and that we can never have enough. It is an antidote to the pervasive and insidious orientation to scarcity that we are taught, which has us always thinking that we need more in order to be content and we need to always do more and be more in order to be able to make a difference. In a capitalist economy that thrives when people believe that the grass is always greener elsewhere and that we need to have what other people have (but only if they have more than we do), then to focus on what is working in our lives and the world, what is sufficient, and what is worthy of celebrating is in and of itself radical. Learning to love and treasure what you already have, feeling blessed, fortunate, privileged…it can all mess with an economic engine that runs on consumption. Gratefulness makes it less likely that we will be minions to the myths of lack.
I like seeing gratefulness as a way to take a stand in a spirit of non-violence and love. There is a hymn that was sung in churches in the South during the violent civil rights uprisings that was called, “Hallelujah Anyhow.” Gratefulness allows us to live into being “grateful anyhow.” Somehow claiming the right to joy, fellowship, faith, and celebration of life in the face of brutal forces that want to subjugate us and strip us bare is radical. As well in the face of all things in life that cause us to grieve. Ari Honorvar is an Iranian woman who lived through the war in her country and in the face of that violence all around her has written and spoken about how “savoring a pleasurable moment is a radical act.” So is creating beauty. Making love. Tending a garden. Making music. Poetry. Joy. I think that what makes gratefulness radical is its ability to turn us towards life and love in a way that replenishes us, connects us meaningfully with others and the Earth, and can ultimately help us to overpower the forces that stand against life and love. What makes gratefulness radical is the impact it has and its capacity to be truly transformative.
RP: As justice-oriented people, how do you suggest we harness gratefulness towards collective justice and liberation?
KN: I cannot help but quote Abby Wambach: “Be grateful. But do not JUST be grateful. Be grateful AND brave. Be grateful AND ambitious. Be grateful AND righteous. Be grateful AND persistent. Be grateful AND loud. Be grateful for what you have AND demand what you deserve.”
Life is not about either/or, it is about both/and. Gratefulness is the same. I think it is important to make a clear distinction between simply feeling grateful and living gratefully, which is grounded in how we embody and act from a place of being grateful. When we relate to gratitude in its true essence, then it is an activator and not anything like a pollyannaish pacifier. It supports us to be brave, intentional, persistent, and vocal.
I would suggest that it is important for us as justice-oriented people to consciously and consistently connect with the ways that our activism is sourced in wanting to protect what we value and cherish. To keep asking ourselves as we make movement and movements, “In service of what?” When we do that, then our actions do a better job of articulating and advancing a vision that we hold for the world, each other, and our own lives. It also makes whatever we do more of a “heart-mandate” which is going to help us to sustain whatever we do for the long haul. If I have learned anything over the decades I have been alive, it is that sourcing whatever I do in love and reverence will always take me down the best path and have the best results. And then making how I “do life” as much of an embodiment and expression of my values as possible…this is how I want to work towards collective justice and liberation. And it is how I want to walk with my sisters and brothers shoulder to shoulder, making a safer, more sensible and sustainable world for all people in every step we take.
Another thing that makes gratefulness radical is that it unleashes generosity. We tend to think of gratitude as a response to generosity but I actually think that the highest forms of generous action arise out of a sense of gratefulness. The more grateful we feel in life and toward life, the more that we will be moved to give and share.