A Little Gratitude Goes A Long Way

by | Sep 5, 2014

I wrote a post after camp last summer about answering the question “how was camp?” I wrote about how impossible of a question that was to answer; I wrote about how the response could not be given in casual conversation and it pained me to continue into anything less than a heartfelt dialogue.

I’ve often been told that I possess a sort of “all-or-nothing” disposition… from silly things like editing the same paper upwards of five times to getting sick with never just one malady at a time (gotta get them all out of the way at once) to buying the entirety of a favorite author’s works, to writing blog posts that are far too long. It’s a blessing and a curse; it’s something I love about myself and it’s the thing that burns me out. It’s my greatest pride and my greatest fear. It’s what excites me about knowing that there are endless opportunities to understand new cultures and communities, to speak new languages, and to interact with people from all over the world who can open my mind and heart. But it limits me because I cannot be at peace unless I am moving, seeing, doing, giving, and receiving. I want more than anything to be out there, learning from the world and its people, but there is a college degree waiting for me and without it, I will not be as free as I wish to be.

Answering that same question, “how was camp?” is even more difficult this year. I can’t wrap my head around what is happening right now in the region. Friends ask me for my take on it, for history and while I have some facts in my head I question where I got them, how I got them, who gave them to me, and how my upbringing plays a role in my conscious and subconscious interpretations. I can’t say that camp was incredible and life-changing in the same ways as in the past, because while it was incredible and life-changing, it was so in a different way. The hard fact of the matter is that we were not complete. It is nobody’s fault. There is no blame, per se. It’s nobody’s fault that we couldn’t all be together this year, but it is very clear who pays the price.

We all do. Some face it differently than others. Some face it with missing camp. Some suffer because conflict builds hatred in their hearts. Some face it with their lives. Others with their morality. But all of us with fear – for some it is distant and for some it is immediate, paralyzing, crushing.

How was camp? Camp brought peace to those in attendance, and maybe, just maybe, to those who attended by a degree or two of separation. But right now, this post isn’t about how camp was. What I think this will end up being about is fear, and what comes of it.

I felt it stirring in my chest as I sat at the pool one day and heard loud “booms” and the accompanying sirens from a distance. I felt it rising as panic as I saw an army helicopter racing back and forth right above us, and I stuffed it back down with a deep breath, remembering that we had been assured we were safe. I felt it in uncertainty at the beach after camp as I saw the sky light up in the opposite direction in which the sun had just set. I felt it most immediately when I was at dinner before camp started and I saw a bright light go whizzing above my head along with a loud hissing, and I realized it wasn’t the Fourth of July and I wasn’t in the States. I felt it in the alarms that sounded at that same moment I looked up, both painfully, shrilly loud and immediate but also far, far away. I felt fear as keenly as I have ever felt it when I stood in the corner of the building, wondering what happens when we die, and if I were about to discover the answer. In those few moments, my mind raced; I thought about why I was there. I thought about what it meant if nothing ended up happening and I thought about what it meant if a bomb was about to land at my feet.

I’m ashamed of it but I wanted to be home. I wanted to be home, in a safe place, where these things don’t happen and I have the freedom, the privilege, to choose whether or not to learn about it in the news. But I also knew that if I were about to die, I would have no regrets about being there. Because even though camp hadn’t started, I was there for Ultimate Peace and Ultimate Peace is home. Wishing to be home in the States and having no regrets about where I was are in no way mutually exclusive. I was proud to be where I was, and I knew in that moment and forever that nothing could ever change that. And suddenly, I was terrified that nobody would know. That if my life were to end, people wouldn’t know that being in the Middle East for camp is something I would never, never, regret.

As it turned out, we hadn’t been in the line of fire. We were told that we were going to be safe in the coming week of camp, and I trusted the information and those who were giving it to me. I did not feel unsafe. But one can’t help but wonder.

After leaving the region, I told a friend and mentor, who I’m sure I bother all too often but who luckily doesn’t seem to mind, about the experience. One aspect of her response was about gratitude – that we should feel grateful we don’t live in that kind of fear. It’s true – and I agree with it 100%. But something about that statement made me uncomfortable.

I spend a lot of time thinking about gratitude. I have worked and worked to notice when I start forming some kind of judgment on a fellow person, and to take a step back and realize there’s no point: that it only confines the both of us. When that happens (more often than I’d like to admit), I remind myself that we’re all just trying to do whatever it takes to be happy in this world, and as long as an action is not harmful to anyone, I must find it in myself to take a step back and be grateful for the other person’s contribution.

I believe that a little gratitude goes a long way and I work hard to make it an important piece of my life. What bothers me is that gratitude isn’t enough. Being grateful is a healthy state of being, but it must also be a call to action. The very fact of feeling gratitude implies that we know we are privileged to have whatever it is we are feeling grateful for, whether that is a family, food on the table, physical safety, or even an emotional state of being. And by virtue of knowing that we are privileged, we are not ignorant. Ignorance, then, becomes a choice. When I am home in Chicago or at school in Appleton, and I get in bed at night, I have the choice of turning my mind off to the injustices and horrors that surround me – whether that be tens, hundreds, or thousands of miles away. Gratitude attempts to pull us out of that blissful ignorance. By reminding us of our privilege, it brings our attention to the disparity between those of us who are thankful for a thing and those who don’t possess or feel it. Gratitude is an important feeling. One of the most powerful I know. Because its power lies inherently in its ability to call us to action.

I feel grateful that in the places I currently live, I feel safe from physical harm. Feeling and acknowledging that gratitude is important. But that gratitude in itself will never change the world. It is the action that comes from it that can make a difference. No, I can’t free the world of fear and harm. But every action means something. And I can accomplish many, many actions in my lifetime if I choose make it a priority. If I choose action, not ignorance. If I choose to act on the gratitude I feel. If I actively think and try to understand, truly and in-depth – the issues our world faces and how I can play a role in moving forward.

I have experienced the joys of getting to know those who come from very different backgrounds than I do. I believe with everything I have that we are all put here to further and better the world and our human peers. I believe we are all here to contribute to this planet we call home. Sometimes we get out of sync; some actions cause destruction. But that just means the peaceful ones have to do more, have to be stronger. I believe we all go about our roles differently, and the roles we take are dependent upon our strengths and our weaknesses. I have had the privilege to enjoy the many beauties of sharing language, and those experiences have taught me how meaningful language can be. I’ve always loved interacting and exchanging knowledge and opinion, and I plan on using those skills to go abroad and teach English. I want to reap the benefits of receiving new languages as much as I possibly can and I want to give the same benefits to others. We give by receiving and we receive by giving. I can’t think of anything more hopeful than that.

Maybe it’s naïve of me to think that I can just go and be a change and make a difference. But in the past it’s given me some beautiful relationships and incredibly valuable knowledge and understanding, even if I’ve had a few hiccups as well. And if that “just go” attitude gets me to a place where I believe I’m taking action, it’s getting me where I want to go. The exact location isn’t important. If it gets me to a place where I believe I’m living honestly and meaningfully and I’m interacting with people who have different experiences than I do and they’re making me think about things in a new way and maybe I’m doing the same for them, then it’s a naiveté I’ll embrace. Then it’s a naiveté I never want to lose. It starts with true gratitude. For true gratitude manifests itself in action.

My heart breaks for those living consistently in the fear I lived in for those few short minutes before camp. Not on “both” sides, because there are far more than two sides to this conflict. I feel and I fear for every side. I live in terror that something could happen to my friends (Arab, Jewish, Palestinian, or however they may identify) living in the Middle East – the people who have changed my life more irrevocably than they can possibly know. And I feel guilty and ashamed because I should fear for everyone the same as I fear for them. A life lost is not any less tragic because it was someone I didn’t know. That life did not end in any less fear than any other life would have. I feel guilty that I am not there with the people I know and love – to comfort and to be comforted, to laugh, to cry, even to argue.

My gratitude is not enough. Nobody’s gratitude, however, true, will ever be enough. Gratitude is only the halfway point between the passive and the active. It is a gateway, and all we have to do is see it, and be stubborn enough to pass through it.

My action is not enough. It will never be enough. I can’t stop the rockets or the tears from falling. I can’t stop the violence and fear from reigning. And I’m afraid that I’ll burn myself out; that I’ll get too caught up in these existential ramblings and in staying up into the wee hours to write them. I’m afraid that I’ll burn out because I want to do so many things. I’m afraid that my body and mind won’t be able to handle it or keep up. There is too much to do in this world and it overwhelms me. I sometimes feel burned out just thinking about all the work that we as a universal humanity must accomplish. That we have no choice but to accomplish, for understanding must reign over fear and compassion over violence. I’m afraid of what’s beyond the gate but I also know that it’s the only place I, we, can ever possibly be at peace.

Who knows. Maybe you think I’m a dreamer. But I bet I’m not the only one.

As always,
Peace, Salaam, Shalom