Gratitude is one of those words that has become tainted and overused over the last few years. Gratitude journals ballooned into full-blown humble-bragging on social media, ad nauseum recitations of beautiful children or perfect autumn days or that special cup of coffee. I feel immense gratitude for the things and circumstances and people in my life, but also feel grateful that I can, for the most part, keep it to myself. The joy for me is not in the telling, rather in the being. But there is one form of gratitude that I prefer to share over all others. Saying thank you to others.
This week, I burrowed into my reading chair under a couple of blankets with the Virginia Quarterly Review. I read “Stepping Up” by Sylvia A. Harvey, who wrote about the children of imprisoned mothers and the grandmothers who raise their grandchildren. It was enlightening and painful and I sat for awhile after, my eyes welled up with tears. It made me think about the all the different perspectives – the children aching for mothers, the grandmothers struggling to do the right thing, the mothers, living claustrophobic lives of regret.
Empathy. I cannot emphasize enough how grateful I am to writers who tell the difficult stories and help us see the world. Those who sit with strangers and coax the words out of them and arrange them in such a way as to touch me, hundreds of miles away in my cozy suburban life. To move me to tears, to want to do something, anything to right the ship of social and criminal justice. A single story as a way in to thinking about criminal and social justice reform. I have come into the practice of turning impotent frustration into action. One of my favorite organizations is The Women’s Prison Book Project, so I’m getting ready to send more books, but there is much more to be done.
Criminal justice and social reform has been the fight of many social activists over the years. It’s true that so many things require our attention, our anger, our involvement. It can be overwhelming. But I’ve found that if I shut out the “shoulds” and focus on learning about one issue at a time, and pair action with that knowledge, I can be more useful as a citizen. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to know about voting rights and campaign finance reform. While I continue to work on those issues, I’ve found my attention captured by the prison system and incarceration rate in this country. Time to learn more.
This is the ultimate power of storytelling, fiction or nonfiction. It gives the reader a window into the lives of others. It gives us the opportunity to be better people. I remember many years ago that someone referred to the writer Anna Quindlen as a “monster of empathy”. It was meant to be an insult for the circumspect way she addressed social issues in her column for the New York Times. I think it’s okay to be a monster of empathy, as long as empathy is followed by an action, no matter how small.
My other slight action was to tell the writer of that article, Sylvia Harvey, Thank you. One of the rare delights of Twitter is being able to contact writers and artists and musicians just to express gratitude. The unknowns, the knowns, it doesn’t matter. Saying thank you to people who touch you in some way, just to let them know that their work is appreciated. We’re so quick to critique and criticize, thinking everything we read and see needs our judgmental pronouncements. What about the work that takes us out of ourselves, teaches us empathy, gives us a new perspective, stops us, for just a moment, from being the self-centered, complacent creatures that we can be?
This is a practice I’ve decided to engage in as a regular thing. I’ve written notes, emails, and now Tweets to writers who have made my world a better place through their work. It’s not idol worship or fandom, it’s simple gratitude. This thing they did brought something to my life. Sometimes they write back and I squeal just a bit, so unaccustomed to all these direct methods of communication. Still, the simple act of saying thank you has added to my reading and writing experience – an act of solidarity with those who seek to translate the world into words.