America’s annual consumerism orgasm is just passed. And if a little bit of post-sex let-down is to be expected, it may also be that some of us view the whole thing with negative feelings ranging from mild distaste to horror. People camping out on the sidewalk for days to buy a 54 inch flat screen, Wal-Mart customers coming to blows over a pair of shoes, families devoting hours to military style strategizing for the best way to hit the mall, a holiday defined by “thanks” and “giving” followed straightway by a veritable festival of desire, grasping, and I-me-mine. Endless environment damaging heavy metals, transportation, packaging and fossil fuels.

Even if the shopping is keyed around Christmas presents for others, what we have then are human relationships defined by things – and things, we should be clear, which are a long way from necessity. Virtually none of this is about food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, or medicine for the chronically ill. Actually, it is generally about toys for those who already have several dozen, phones with a few more features, or somebody’s thirty-seventh sweater or forty-fifth pair of jeans. In my own case it is likely to be about yet another classical cd or mp3 player for a man who has far more than he needs already.

Spiritually, the counter to all this, or at least one such counter, is gratitude: delighting in what we have, appreciating all the forces in the universe (from the sun and water and the process of evolution to the species that make food possible and all the people who labor so that we have housing, clothes, medicine and everything else). Gratitude is the very opposite of the endless search for more and better, the short attention span which finds pleasure in the new toy for only a few days or hours, the restless pursuit of the faster, sleeker, and more fully featured. Gratitude offers satisfaction in place of restlessness, simple joy instead of anxiety that someone else might Get the Last One.

Above all gratitude gives a terrific feeling which comes when we realize that so much of our life is an unexpected, undeserved gift. Who, after all, “deserves” the colors of the sunset, the sound of a Robin in spring, the feel of the skin of a newborn, the smile of a spouse who has put up with you for 40 years, the taste of clean water, the genius of Beethoven or Coltrane?

While gratitude is not always easy to come by, surely it is a more reliable source of human happiness than what we’ve just been through.

And yet…here it gets tricky, and complicated, and (of all things!) political. For how are we to know what is a proper object of gratitude and what, indeed, is something from which we should divest? Consider an enormously wealthy man offering a prayer of gratitude before God – for his possessions, his social status, his many gratifying luxuries – and then we learn that his wealth comes from human trafficking. Imagine a slave-owner thanking the universe for making him a master rather than a slave; the triumphant general praising God for the victory which allowed him to slaughter his enemies; an offering of thanks that I am white rather than black, a man rather than a woman, a colonialist rather than colonized, in power rather than downtrodden.

For what can we legitimately be grateful?

The beginning of the very long answer to this question is that we can only respond to this crucial spiritual dilemma by a deep and serious consultation with political ideas and movements. We will need to critically examine and challenge the social arrangements which have given us what we call our own. And perhaps realize that authentic spiritual gratitude cannot coexist with injustice, domination, and oppression.

Many will find this move from spirituality to politics a strange idea. From a spiritual perspective, after all, isn’t politics about struggle, power, violence, war, control, and one big ego after another? How could politics help us develop the spiritual virtues of gratitude and mindfulness, compassion and acceptance? The answer is that politics, which has certainly gotten (and often deserved) a bad name, is also a profoundly important source of insight which the pursuit of spiritual wisdom desperately needs.

How is that possible?

Political movements may be the scene of ego-bound competition and violence, yes, but they have also given us democracy and the rule of law, women’s rights and civil rights for ethnic/racial minorities. It is political movements and theories which have challenged the conventional status quo which said there was nothing wrong with a slaveholder thanking god for the wealth his slaves brought him, or a man’s gratitude for his morning relaxation while his wife does all the childcare and housework. If compassion is a central spiritual value, it is political life that helps us understand what compassion means in the context of the broad contours of social reality. If spirituality requires gratitude, gratitude requires a long hard look at the balance of power and the distribution of wealth.

This is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. If we have learned anything from the lives of Martin Luther King, Gandhi, or Dorothy Day, it is that activist politics have a good deal to learn from spiritual traditions as well. In the end, when we look at justice and wisdom, compassion and revolution, non-violent civil disobedience and mindfulness we see that each requires the other to be informed and effective – or at least a little less likely to betray its own best intentions.

So let’s move on from consumerist grasping, but also from a too restricted or self-concerned spirituality. Wisdom and kindness have only their credit cards to lose, and a whole world to win.

Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His new book, Spirituality: What it Is and Why it Matters, has just been published by Oxford University Press.


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