Jan. 12, 2020

Practicing gratitude and contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.

We are showered every day with the gifts of the Earth, gifts we have neither earned nor paid for: air to breathe, fresh and clean water, healthy soils, food from plants; all that we need to live is provided to us. Though the Earth provides us with all that we need, we have created a consumption-driven economy that asks, “What more can we take from the Earth?” and almost never “What does the Earth ask of us in return?”

Most wisdom traditions recognize and understand the covenant of reciprocity, that for the Earth to stay in balance, for the gifts to continue to flow, we must give back in equal measure for what we take. We are not passive recipients of her gifts, but active participants in her well-being. We should be honored to reciprocate. It lets us know that we belong. To understand that we are interdependent beings with all the other life on earth, but also that we have gifts to give as well.

One of the gifts we can offer is gratitude. The next step in our cultural evolution, if we are to persist as a species on this beautiful planet, is to expand our protocols for gratitude to the living Earth. Gratitude is most powerful as a response to the Earth because it provides an opening to reciprocity, to the act of giving back. Reciprocity—returning the gift—is not just good manners; it is how the biophysical world works. Balance in ecological systems arises from feedback loops, from cycles of giving and taking. Reciprocity among parts of the living Earth produces equilibrium, in which life as we know it can flourish. When the gift is in motion, it can last forever.

Many cultural traditions are full of cautionary tales about the failure of gratitude. When people forget to honor the gift, the consequences are always material as well as spiritual. The rain doesn’t come, the crops don’t grow, the animals disappear, and the legions of offended plants and animals and rivers rise up against the ones who neglected gratitude. These mythic archetypes represent proper action: equity in giving and receiving. 

Being mindful of something as simple as offering gratitude before a meal is a place to begin. Or stopping to smell the roses. Hug a tree and thank it for the oxygen it produces. Appreciate nature’s beauty and recuperative properties.

This human emotion of gratitude has adaptive value, because it engenders practical outcomes for sustainability. The practice of gratitude can, in a very real way, lead to the practice of self-restraint, of taking only what we need. Acknowledging the gifts that surround us creates a sense of satisfaction, a feeling of enough-ness which is an antidote to the societal messages that drill into our spirits telling us we must have more. A state of gratitude can initiate feelings of contentment. Practicing contentment is a radical act in a consumption-driven society.

Ecological restoration is an act of reciprocity and the Earth asks us to turn our gifts to healing the damage we have done. The Earth-shaping prowess that we thoughtlessly use to sicken the land can be used to heal it. It is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship with land. We can be medicine for the Earth, partners in renewal. It begins with acknowledging the gifts earth gives us and our participation in the reciprocity of the cycle of receiving and giving.  

Robin Wall Kimmerer