Pathways to Gratitude in Challenging Times

Maddy Harland
Thursday, 29th July 2021

It is easy to be grateful in good times, much harder in times of challenge and tragedy, yet that is when gratitude opens us up to reciprocity, enabling healing. Maddy Harland shares some simple wisdom to keep our inner connection.

Every issue of PM is an opportunity to express our gratitude to all our subscribers, readers, contributors, partners, stores and distributors for your continued support in what are challenging times. We have survived by a process of swift adaptation (especially when all of our stores closed in many parts of the world overnight in March 2020), a willingness to adopt new ideas and ways of working, and because of the loyalty of all of you. We thank you.

At a Cultural Emergence course at Applewood Permaculture Centre some years ago, Jon Young (8 Shields Institute) told a story in his inimitable way about gratitude that I have never forgotten. He described how the word ‘gratitude’ means ‘the words that must come first’ for the Iroquoian-speaking Kanien’Kahake, meaning ‘People of the Flint’ (who we westerners call the Mohawk). So all those times as a child that I heard the rhythmical ‘call and respond’ of Native Americans in Hollywood Westerns, I was actually listening to a beautiful and comprehensive litany of gratitude to all of Creation. Had I been taught this earlier, it may have transformed my childish ignorance into that of deep respect.

This nugget of wisdom from Jon took me further on a journey about gratitude and its daily practice that has stood me in good stead in the two years. It has culminated in the understanding of the deep reciprocity of gratitude that I have taken deep into my DNA: that in order to receive, we must first give our thanks in any situation to make room for future abundance. It is easy to be grateful for good things – though sometimes we are all remiss and do not remember this – but it is more difficult to ‘give praise’ for what causes us pain and suffering. The art is to find the lessons within that darker cycle. By acknowledging and understanding our wounding, we not only enable growth, we free ourselves from what makes us suffer.

The First Nation wisdom keeper, Jamie Sams, who sadly died in December 2020, reminds us “we are to be grateful for what we are able to give away as well as being grateful for the gifts we receive. In this manner, the circle of giving and receiving is created, allowing us to share.”1 So often, she continues, we take for granted the simple gifts of daily life, like the warmth of the sun, our ability to breathe, free will, clean water, our health, our friends and family … Covid has been a stern teacher reminding us to value these simple blessings. Too often we do not appreciate what we have. Worse, we may try to fill our “… emptiness with material objects or pretended wisdom that will never make us happy or whole.”2

We hear so much of our yearning for deeper connection with Nature as if it is tantalisingly outside of us, a part of life that we cannot reach. Again gratitude and respect is a way of dissolving the barrier that keeps us separate. I feel gratitude every time I see a bird of prey, a hornet, a deer browsing at the edge of a woodland, a flock of long-tailed tits, the chattering of the house sparrows in a hedgerow … I do not hunt down these encounters, but when they happen they lift my spirits and remind me of the beauty and preciousness of all life.

Covid has also highlighted darker aspects of our societies. A friend of mine reminded me that 88% of the people who have died of Covid in the UK fall into the old and vulnerable categories. At the beginning of the pandemic she told me, “As a mother of an adult with learning disabilities, it is heartbreaking to realise that the daughter I have fought for over the last 20 years was not classed as an important member of society. To have a social worker affirm that she would not be admitted to hospital if she catches Covid (or anything else to be honest) was like a punch in the stomach.” Even if my friend’s daughter made it to hospital she would not have a family member with her, would not understand what was happening, and she would be very frightened.

“As a family,” said my friend, “we would have no say in an automatic DNR (‘Do Not Resuscitate’) that would be placed on my daughter so that she wouldn’t take up a ventilator which could be used for a ‘more important, valued’ member of society. The Covid laws have put back disability rights by 20 years, jeopardising care in society.” The use of DNRs had become commonplace for people with learning disabilities and life limiting illnesses. Fortunately, that situation has now changed in the UK and the rights of vulnerable people have been largely restored.

Just as we need to practice gratitude to create the space for abundance in our lives, we need to share the privilege of abundance with all life. It seems as a society, we have a default tendency to be as brutal to those with special needs as we are to other species and ecosystems. Permaculture teaches us to uphold the ethic of ‘Fair Shares’ and redistribute ‘wealth’. This is not a political ideology – far from it – but an understanding of the cycle of respect and gratitude that forms the foundational values in many traditional, sustainable cultures.

1,2 The Thirteen Original Clan Mothers, Jamie Sams, Harper Collins