On this pre-Thanksgiving travel day, I am riding a train from Copenhagen to Amsterdam – opting for ground travel rather than a much shorter plane ride, as my small contribution to reducing my overly large carbon footprint. I love traveling this way: seeing the land stretch out before me, mingling with locals, hearing the sounds of multiple languages, feeling the distances between points that are eclipsed in the air. Plus train travel offers undistracted time for reflection and writing.
I will be meeting up with two dear friends/colleagues from London (also traveling by train): Ann Phoenix and Elaine Bauer. I met Ann and Elaine in 2009 when I spent six weeks on sabbatical working on Ann’s study of “non-normative” childhoods (see https://www.researchcatalogue.esrc.ac.uk/grants/RES-051-27-0181-A/read/outputs/title), analyzing interviews with the adult children of immigrants who serve as language and cultural brokers between their families and the larger social world. It was such a treat to meld minds with these brilliant and generous women, and to build friendships that have stretched across space and time.
That year I was in recovery from what I now call my “year from hell:” a time of multiple losses dealt through cancer, divorce, five surgeries, and the death of my father. It took me a long time to move through the grieving process, to heal and reach a profound sense of gratitude not just for surviving, but for all I learned about what really matters in life by facing the losses head on. I have reflected on that journey in another Thanksgiving blog (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/on-gratitute-genocide-rec_b_4400474?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAHovdfDGiXpMKobhBKg1dXoarmKm2JyUdmomK5w3chU6jfQYJ34XXvXLqZCju7KOsfHTqPMoRWheNUu9zl_4gqwQgdB82a0IjMFak_08NfBxL9kjZzbVRy4k28eWynwk5flbN-G0UlHaD3n1TvseHAoV6FFBqs-lKAFbzTokOa4H), and I channeled what I learned from these life lessons into my work, culminating in a book that just went to press last week (https://www.routledge.com/Mindful-Ethnography-Mind-Heart-and-Activity-for-Transformative-Social/Orellana/p/book/9781138361041).
Ten years later, as I approach another milestone birthday, and as the world moves into an increasingly threatening climate emergency, I want to dig deeper on the gratitude front, and think hard about what my moral and ethical responsibility is to the world, given all that I have received in my lifetime. Because in so many ways, I have come to see that I have been gifted with living through the very best years of the entire history of the species on the planet (from my social location, with all the privileges that my whiteness and location in the global north accords).
What do I mean by “the best years of the species”? The world was expanding; the Cold War had ended; and things were looking up, including on the social front, through the expansion of human and civil rights, and on the economic front, via the expansion of the global economy. Travel became more affordable and globalization had not yet set in (thus the world actually looked quite different in different places; you didn’t see a Starbucks on every corner). Social media had not yet colonized our lives. And we did not yet realize the possibility of our species’ extinction.
Ironically, the very things that made my lifestyle more comfortable (and that made it possible for my parents to raise eight children in modest circumstances, such as the invention of convenience foods and plastic) are now the very things that are contributing to the threat of extinction.
What is my responsibility in the face of these realizations?
When Trump was elected, my brother Robert suggested, only half facetiously, that perhaps it was time for us aging white folks to sacrifice ourselves for the welfare of the planet: via self-immolation in front of the White House, much as Buddhist priests did to protest the Vietnamese war. Robert has also suggested, again only half facetiously, that perhaps everyone should be given a “death day” – an appointed time to check out, once we’ve used up our fair share of the resources needed for life.
I don’t think I’m brave or enlightened enough to set myself on fire. I’m not sure I’ll ever be courageous enough to voluntarily “check out” of life. And while I believe deeply in the equitable sharing of resources – not just a political stance, but one that was strongly enculturated by growing up in a family of ten people – I also recognize that even in an ideal world all resources can never be distributed with complete equity. We can strive to make things fair for others, but in the end, we each get what we get, of both tangibles and intangibles, such as our share of beauty, intelligence, love, belonging, and connection.
The question is, what do we do with what we get?
Perhaps we can do more good by staying alive and sharing our gifts with others than by sending shock waves through our families and nation through the kind of dramatic actions my brother suggested. (So please don’t worry that I am suicidal. Nor is my brother.)
The first thing we can do, I think, is to deeply and fully embrace what we have, with gratefulness, rather than focusing on what we didn’t get, or what we have lost. (However, as per my previous Thanksgiving blog, I realize that grieving can’t be rushed, anger and resentment can be part of the journey, and we can achieve a deeper sense of gratefulness when there is room for us to name our suffering as well.)
And then, we can do what we can to pay it all forward. The tangibles and the intangibles. Share what we have received with the world. For me, the spaces I most aim to do this are with my family, my students, and at B-Club. (See http://www.marjoriefaulstichorellana.com/?s=B-Club for blogs about this space that is my main place for community-engaged research and that is so dear to my heart; see also https://www.routledge.com/Immigrant-Children-in-Transcultural-Spaces-Language-Learning-and-Love/Faulstich-Orellana/p/book/9781138804951).
Feeling guilty or ashamed for what we have (as I have often done) won’t make the world a better place. Focusing on what we didn’t get won’t bring those things to us. But we can make the world better by sharing what we have been given – and perhaps also by giving to others what we wished we had gotten ourselves. Perhaps, if enough of us do this, we can even turn the threat of extinction around, by moving beyond the grasping, never-enough, need-more-more-more human mentality that seems to have led us into this mess in the first place.
And we may even find that what we give to others comes circling back to ourselves – as indeed I have found, in the sense of connection, love and belonging I have received from B-Club love.