Have a Gratitudinous New Year

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One of the first lessons most of us learned at our mother’s knee about table manners: hold back before gobbling the grub, and share a moment with everyone at the table to say “grace,” or some toast for all there is to be grateful for. At the end of the meal, at the very latest, polite people were taught to take a moment to sing the praises of the people who prepared the meal.

Food organizers need to learn good food manners, too, and recognize that universal human rituals around food, such as giving thanks, are an untapped opportunity to promote positive change in food systems.

After about 15 years organizing for various food causes and almost 50 years as a community worker of some kind, I am confident in saying that gratitude and thankfulness are the beginning and end of wisdom when it comes to leading the still-emerging food movement.

Thankfully, there are still a few new things to say about gratitude, notwithstanding that virtually every major world religion and philosophy, over thousands of years of human progress, setbacks, celebrations and suffering, has named gratitude top hit on the virtue parade.  It is “not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others,” Marcus Cicero, ancient Rome’s great philosopher and humanist, said over 2000 years ago.

The blossoming of food movements over the last 20 years has shown me the all-purpose value of gratitude as grounding for skill sets that support an effective, positive, engaged, outgoing, life-enhancing style of organizing.

A cultivated virtue

Gratitude is known as a cultivated virtue. It’s a long way from just “doin’ what comes naturally.”  Nice, and perhaps telling, that the very metaphor depicting cultivated virtues is linked to the root phrase in both agriculture. It’s part of human survival as cultured beings.

After suffering put-downs for quite a time as Pollyannaish or naïve or unrealistic or sappy and generally uncool, gratitude is enjoying a comeback, thanks to yoga practitioners, meditators and one of the most respected psychologists in the U.S., Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism and founder of the “positive psychology” movement.

In my case, I learned to cultivate gratitude at the school of hard knocks. My polemicaltude was getting me into more trouble than I could handle when I challenged City of Toronto and Toronto Public Health managers in the same way I’d ranted and railed at injustice for most of my career. I must have seen myself as a paid insultant.  I came to realize that I might well be able to hold onto my job with this approach, but would never be able to scale the wall of opposition to changing foodways, or even get someone to open a door and invite me in for a chat until I learned how relationships could be improved with a little more honey and a little less vinegar.

More important than any book I read about food or public health to my—I like to think highly successful —ten-year career at the Toronto Food Policy Council were a set of books I read about positive attitudes. I gorged on Gandhi, Getting to Yes, Dealing with the Customer from Hell and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People during my first summer holiday from my job, and they transformed the way I saw life and responded to obstacles.

I’m a case study of learning to practice gratitude as part of the resilience needed to cope with hard times. Some people would benefit from becoming more grateful and less “spoiled” when everything is coming up roses. But its enduring appeal is based on its ability to build character for hard times. When the going gets tough, the tough stay put and get grateful, I like to say. If you can’t count your blessings, not very much is going to add up for you because you have no idea who and what are on your side.

Dance the dialectic

There’s a reason why so many of the most admired leaders have been “happy warriors,” to use the phrase of the great romantic poet, William Wordsworth. New research (much of it nicely summarized in Wikipedia, which I appreciate) shows the grateful style of mind is crucial to effective campaigning. Gratitude helps campaigners conduct their own feasibility study because they learn to see beyond apparent realities, to identify the barely-visible dance of dialectical contradiction and potentiality beneath the surface, and thereby to re-imagine how today’s relationships can be flipped and reconfigured.

That’s the turn of mind which might have led the ancient Chinese to write “crisis” with two characters, thought to identify both “danger” and “opportunity.” It’s also the habit of mind cultivated by most transformative leaders—from Jesus to Marx to Gandhi to King to Mandela—all of whom perfected the non-martial art of converting vulnerability and weakness into triumphant strength.

Gratitude also identifies the kind of features a campaign needs to assess. Organizers in stressed neighborhoods who’ve been taught the ABCDs of Asset-Based Community Development by Northwestern University professor John McKnight start by doing a talent and gift assessment, not a problem and needs assessment. Or as a public health-minded doctor might think, start with a diagnosis of what’s right, not what’s wrong, because we have to keep our eye on the ball of what causes health, not just what prevents disease. Gratitude actually models this radical and holistic paradigm for understanding good health, a way of looking at robust health that will be so much more welcoming to powerful food contributions than cure-centered medicine has been.

The political economy of ingratitude

Gratitude is the cornerstone of the only kind of branding that’s going to get the food movement out of the hole dug for us by Big Food, the people who caricature nutritionists as grim, self-righteous battle axe crusaders against any and all pleasures that add a little joy to life. Too many people in the food movement are only too happy (if that is the right word to describe miserable-looking people) to oblige Big Food branders and actually live up to their caricature.

It’s important to understand the political economy of gratitude, especially peculiar in this era where the super-rich seem to feel the most miserable and hard done by in terms of forced tax contributions to others they deem as more fortunate (the poor or disabled, for example) because they don’t  endure such harsh working lives.

It used to be that anger went together with radical left, not radical right, but – maybe it’s the fluoride in the tea – things are different. Anger is the calling card of the anti-equity movement. It makes for great Yell-Radio and TV angertainment, not to mention standard news reports featuring round ups from the daily crime sheet – all to show that society, contrary to almost all the stats, is going to hell.

Ingratitude in politics can be spotted whenever candidates attack government debt. The barely-disguised message, of course, is that only the private sector –  not government-funded colleges and hospitals and school meals – creates wealth, and only the government sector overspends and gets into debt. There’s next-to-no gratitude for what’s been achieved through public and charitable programs, and – all points on the spectrum are equally guilty of this – no-one argues at the ungrateful accounting method that tallies government debt without ever acknowledging that there are assets such as roads, schools, recreation centers, fire halls and police stations on the other side of the ledger. Ingratitude doesn’t get any worse than this form of bean-counting.

Gratitudinal civics 101

Basing assessments of situations on gratitude comes easiest to people who’ve done a stint at the bottom, where almost everything looks up. Partially because people in the bottom 99 per cent need to be mobilized to improve food and other programs, it’s important that gratitude be directed to the common need for self-esteem and self-confidence as well as hope for a better future among people with most to gain from positive change.  As well, gratitude can find the critical elements to success as adeptly as magnetic sweepers find coins on a sand beach or hidden behind cushions in sofas. Finding diamonds in the rough is the real specialty of gratitudinousness.

I look forward to being thankful for a day when retreat sessions of food organizations start their first meeting with a gratitude exercise, perhaps incorporated in their SWOT (Strength/Weakness/Opportunity/Threat) review. It not only provides a lay of the land, it shows how food can feed into (pardon the pun) the great issues of the day. It is important that movements be proud, and have appreciation for the work being done, especially around food, the providers of which are so often belittled and the benefits of which are so often marginalized.

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