Those who know me know that, in addition to being a writer, playwright and educator, I founded an arts organization (Hidden River Arts) which has grown over the last ten years to include yearly fiction and drama competitions, an independent small press, an art gallery and arts outreach programs, including live events. I am also an activist, with a passion for issues related to education. It is in this role that I have struggled the most, often finding myself in despair over the terrible state of our public education in the U.S., the growing corporatization of education, through the corporate colonization of American higher education, and the push toward for-profit charter schools in K-12 education. I despair of the deception, the greed, the cruelty I see in positions of power all around me.
Today, a dear friend, Lee Colston who is an extremely talented playwright and actor, and who is no stranger himself to the challenges and struggles of pursuing a vision, posted a Facebook comment about the fact that as humans, we tend to focus on the negative rather than being grateful for the positive.
He's right, of course.
But, it got me thinking -- how can we do both in the most powerful and effective way?
The "Attitude of Gratitude" philosophy that is spoken of with a lot of "positive thought" gurus, including high profile people like Oprah Winfrey or Will Smith, is a very valuable practice. Being grateful and appreciative of the blessings that come our way is crucial in keeping a positive, grounded attitude about our lives. But here's what I'm thinking: Rather than "attitude of gratitude" being the phrase -- why not change it to "gratitude AND attitude"?
If we could remain grateful and mindful of the blessings of our own personal lives -- for me that includes the health and well-being of my beloved children, the ways in which I've been blessed over the years to touch the lives of thousands of students, creative success, wonderful friends and colleagues, great artistic experiences, wonderful spiritual growth and blessing -- that would go a long way toward grounding us, strengthening us as individuals. We could walk in the energy of appreciation and wonder, conscious of the many gifts we've been given.
But, that doesn't round out the larger aspects of our time on earth. Gratitude for our individual blessings is one half of our world. "Attitude" -- and by that I mean the chin out, steely-eyed ferocious determination to remain active and involved in the effort to make the world a better place for all -- is also essential. We may never get to "perfect" -- but we've got to try. We can't allow our gratitude and appreciation of our own blessings to create a kind of self-absorbed complacency -- or even a self-absorbed focus of great individual striving or effort -- that eclipses the needs of the world. The groundedness we gain by acknowledging our blessings provides a strong rooted quality in us, as individuals, from which we can reach -- branch out -- toward activism on behalf of others. For me, that means remaining active in issues of arts, education, and of social and economic injustice. This has been hard, because of the frustration and set-backs, because of how quickly I begin to think in language of negativity - of "fights" and "conflicts" and "us or them" righteousness. That, I realize, requires an "attitude" adjustment. "Fight" and "conflict" are words of struggle. Of course there IS struggle when we try to change the world. But if the vocabulary we use shifts just a bit, it makes an enormous difference. "Activism" means being active, taking an active role, in social issues. It means playing a part in the human march toward a better life. It means bringing our own sense of blessing to the table, of wanting to share what we know of being blessed. It means thinking of what we do in the larger context -- of it being part of the much larger human drama that we will never fully understand.
It brings me to a film I re-watched just the other day, It's a Wonderful Life The Jimmy Stewart character, George Bailey, is not aware of his own blessings, and of the way in which his actions blessed so many others. He grows so frustrated with the difficulties and struggles of life, against the powers of greed in our world, that he feels his life is worth nothing, his efforts have been worth nothing. In this terrific old Frank Capra film, the character is lucky enough to have a guardian angel show up to point out just how much of a walking miracle he is, the wonder his life has been. The angel, Clarence, is able to say, "You've really had a wonderful life, George," as he shows him proof after proof.
Since we don't live in a Frank Capra film, each of us has to summon up our own "angel" from within. We have to go through the movie of our own life, and count up the many blessings and wonders of our existence. But then, like George Bailey, we have to run back to our own Bedford Falls - whatever that is for each of us - with a sense of joy at the efforts we are about to resume, shouting in celebration a greeting to our opponents, addressing with laughter the obstacles that await.
Gratitude AND Attitude. A recipe for a wonderful life.