I like people who express their gratitude. Positivity breeds positivity. For instance: I’m grateful to know many grateful people, especially ones who believe in and utilize their power to act on the world.
What I don’t appreciate, however, is gratitude that encourages contentment with the status quo. This often comes in the form of comparing the lives of people in different parts of the world. For example, I could say, “having lived in the West Bank just makes me grateful to have running water at home.” Some of that statement is true. The Survivor-esque arguments over water usage that arose in my Ramallah flat when the taps went dry made me grateful that for my most of my life I’ve been able to take running water for granted. However. The “just” part of the statement is false. I’m not JUST grateful that I have running water while others don’t. I’m angry that we don’t all have it. If you’re truly grateful for what you have that others don’t you ought to be willing to fight so that they can have it, too. That’s the difference between solidarity and charity. The difference between compassion and pity. Compassion means you recognize that there is no distinction between yourself and others. So gratitude should be based on “haves” that are shared.
A few days ago my co-fellow and I were discussing how to interact with beggars in India. Wherever we go in Hyderabad, men, women, and children approach us (and the people around us) asking for money. They are persistent—following us if we’re walking, standing in front of us if we’re waiting for the bus. Ilana and I had previously pondered when to give, what to give, and how much to give without coming up with good answers. In our latest discussion I said that in instances where I wasn’t giving the begging person money I felt torn between not wanting to act as though they aren’t people by ignoring them and the reality that the only way to not lead them on is to not make eye contact. Understanding the tension, Ilana said, “You don’t want to be unkind—” In that precise moment, before she could add a “but,” I realized the contradiction in my own words. The issue is not actually whether to look at or away from someone: choosing not to give the person money or food in the first place is unkind. Seeing someone suffering and not responding IS ignoring their humanity.
Looking into eyes and smiles, 9/11/10, Amaravathi; I've been pleasantly surprised that far from being shy or skeptical of me and my camera, most Indians I encounter ask me directly to take their photo and then show them the screen. This woman gestured to me just before hopping off the back of the auto rickshaw we rode, so I didn't get the chance to ask her name. (In Telugu, "Mi peru?")
There’s another moment from three years ago when I can pinpoint how someone’s words triggered a clear shift in how I thought about a situation. While studying abroad I took a class called “Peasants, nomads, and rural change” with an erudite Egyptian professor, Hanan Sabea. Some months into the course she pointed out that there is much to be critiqued in the idea of international development—a provocative statement to make to a class of students who were at least 80 percent international relations or anthropology majors from the U.S., a.k.a prime candidates for leading the next few decades of international development work.
One of the class members (possibly me) asked Dr. Sabea what she meant. “Developing and developed imply that poor countries should follow the trajectory of certain other countries to become like those countries,” she replied.
Oh. When she put it like that, the ideologies embedded in the word “development” and all its related discourse seem obvious, but on a day-to-day basis those were the assumptions that went into how we talked, thought, and acted in regard to global differences and global problems.
My friend Phil and I walked out of many such classes with the great Hanan blown away by what we had seemed to understand in class discussion but could not put into words afterward. Although some articles we read later in the semester focused on development projects in Africa and the complexities of planning rural change, her criticism of the fundamental premise of development didn’t resurface among my peers. But it remained latent in my mind. It is an idea that directly and indirectly shaped my thinking for the thesis I wrote a year later, and it continues to influence how I interact with sights, sounds, and ideas I encounter in the world today.
That’s what good anthropology does. It causes you to question aspects of your life and thinking that usually go unexamined. When someone says they are “just grateful” to have things that others don’t (often along “developing” vs. “developed” world fault lines) they allow the reasons that some people have things that others don’t to go unexamined.
But I believe that people who are wise enough to practice gratitude in their lives are capable of recognizing that global or local wealth gaps are neither a natural occurrence nor simply a result of people not working hard enough. “Haves” and “have-nots” exist because people with corporate and governmental power actively make decisions and policies that impoverish others and enrich themselves and selected others. For instance, in the case of the West Bank, water does not just disappear at random. Israel controls much of the water throughout the Occupied Territories, using it for Israeli residents and illegal settlers, while preventing Palestinians from accessing the water. Here’s an excerpt about one of the main water systems from a Palestine Monitor fact sheet:
The Mountain Aquifer extends for over 130 km, from Mount Carmel in the north to the Negev in the south, and is 35 km wide, from the Jordan Valley in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
It is typically divided into three sub-aquifers. The primary one, due to the high quality of its water, is the Western Aquifer. Most of its recharge area lies in the West Bank, while the entire storage area lies in Israel. 95% of its water is used by Israel.
The second one, the Northern Aquifer, has both its recharge and storage areas essentially located within the West Bank. However, Israel extracts about 70% of the water. Finally, the Eastern Aquifer, which is entirely within the West Bank, has 37% of its water consumed by Israel – mostly by settlers.
The Jordan Basin stretches over 330 km from the Upper Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, with an average width of 30 m. The whole ecosystem is now endangered by the diversion of over 90 percent of the water, with dams and pump-ing stations installed all along its route and the dis-charge of sewage and agricultural waste.
The Palestinians have no access at all to this aqui-fer’s water. By contrast, Israel enjoys a share of 31 percent of the water produced.
Israel prevents the Palestinians from accessing water resources legally, technically and physically. Legally, the main consequence of the classification of water as (Israeli) public property requires a per-mit in order to drill new wells or fix existing ones. Permits go through eighteen stages of approval in various administrative departments. Furthermore, quotas limit the drawing of water from each well. In many cases, Palestinians are deprived of access to water resources by being deprived of access to their land in general. De facto expropriations are frequently carried out by the establishment of military areas on natural reserves, especially in the Jordan Valley.
Access to resources and a decent standard of living are not something that “just” happen. They are conditions that we must actively create in our societies. So, in additional to my material conditions I’m grateful for all of the people in places I’ve worked, like Palestine and Honduras and the U.S., who don’t just sit back and count their blessings but stand up and fight for widespread change. And who hold me responsible for doing the same.
6/18/10, An Nabi Saleh; A Palestinian paramedic tells an Israeli soldier to release Khaled Tamimi at a weekly protest against Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes.
9/30/09, Tegucigalpa; Members of the Honduran National Resistance Front march in one of more than 100 consecutive days of demonstrations against the June 2009 military coup d'etat.