The Obligation of Gratitude

A call to make our appreciation for our own good fortune more actionable for others.

Atlas masked, at Rockefeller Center

Most people think of Thanksgiving as the high holiday of gratitude in the calendar year, but for me it tends to be the last few weeks of December. The more time I spend reflecting on the year about to end and making plans and strategies for the year ahead, the more opportunity I find to appreciate what went well, and what could have gone worse.

This year, amid the covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to list what went wrong, but my lifelong inclination has always been to see the good. We got vaccines, two or maybe more of them, and they’re already starting to protect the front-line healthcare workers, including my nephew and his fiancée, who’ve labored all year amid tremendous risk.

I am grateful that, despite a few mystery illnesses this year, one of which was quasi-diagnosed over a tele-health quasi-appointment as “symptoms consistent with coronavirus,” I later tested negative for antibodies, so either the antibody test was faulty or I had indeed not had the virus. Either way, my brushes with whatever illness I had were manageable at home, and I learned to live in a sort of quantum reality in which I both had and didn’t have the virus, and in which others I encountered on my rare outings both had and didn’t have the virus. Honestly, although that may sound convoluted, I found it to be the only sensible way to proceed through the year, and I’m grateful to have a mind that can hold seemingly opposing thoughts to be possibly true at the same time.

Beyond the virus, I had a cancer scare earlier this year, for the third time in my life, when a routine mammogram revealed abnormalities. I went in for a biopsy on March 10: the beginning of the week the U.S. really began to react to the pandemic. I was afraid of a cancer diagnosis for all the usual reasons, but even more so because I envisioned how risky it would be to have to go through what could be punishing treatment during a pandemic. But I got lucky, and now I’m 3 for 3 on the winning side of cancer scares in my life so far (thyroid, skin, and now breast), and I will be grateful to stay that way as long as I can. I am also grateful not to undergo immunity-altering treatments during a viral pandemic. And my gratitude blends into deep empathy toward anyone who has had to undergo risky medical treatments this year.

Even for those who stayed healthy, the year took a lot of opportunities away, whether for performers, athletes, restaurateurs, what-have-you. And as a professional speaker, my work was deeply disrupted: events canceled, postponed for months, postponed indefinitely. Of course, many shifted to virtual, which meant that speakers like me had to scramble to tool up and skill up to provide a whole new service. Even if you’d delivered webinars and virtual events before, and I certainly had, you hadn’t done it under these conditions, with this much riding on the success of translating a galvanizing, memorable, impactful keynote address from a big stage to a small screen. There was a lot to learn. And I can be grateful for learning, even when the impetus to learn is rude and pushy, as this pandemic certainly was.

It was especially hard to adjust to the limitations of the year because I’d made such big plans for it. For the previous three years, 2020 had been my target year when I forecast the convergence of a lot of small changes I’d been making and the momentum I’d been having. I had metrics that I was watching closely even while I was pushing to make the growth happen, like an odometer about to flip that you glance down at carefully while you continue to drive. The numbers won’t change unless you’re moving, but you don’t want to miss recognizing the moment you’ve been waiting for.

No surprise, I didn’t reach those goals this year. With everything so much in flux, it just wasn’t the market for what I had planned. But the surprising thing was that I walked away having made a small but reasonable income, despite everything. It wasn’t what I had planned, but it was enough to put some of it aside for cushion against further uncertainty, and I find myself grateful for that.

Even amid the heartbreak of tragic news stories like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it was possible to be grateful for the outpouring of condemnation for the police actions that killed them, for the hate that killed Ahmaud Arbery, for the inequity that seeped into everything. It was gratifying to see people marching and demonstrating in every state in the USA. It was perhaps even more gratifying to see so many simultaneous global protests, addressing the versions of white supremacy and colonialism that pertained to each of their own countries and histories, that too have legislated inequality and sanctioned violence against people of color around the world.

In a year it was easy to hate, there is still so much to be grateful for.

But everywhere that I’m thankful I also have deep compassion and obligation to people who don’t have what I’m thankful to have — or who do have, like cancer, the things I’m thankful not to have. Gratitude is grounding, but it grounds you so that you can move with confidence from that starting point. What I’ve learned over the years is that gratitude can become too self-serving and insulated from others if all we do is think of how we, ourselves, have made out. Being an optimist, as I am, means that you can see the better of the possible outcomes, and that entails an ethical obligation to work toward that better outcome.

If this year has delivered any message it ought to be that society relies on our acting beyond our own self-interest.

It’s not enough to be thankful for the first responders and the delivery workers and everyone else in essential roles: we have to take care of them. Our gratitude must grow into generosity and grace, to protective policies, to common courtesies that reflect our connected fates.

Early this year we were advised that we should wear a mask to protect others. That motivated some people, but not as many as you might hope. Then we began to learn that some masks did help us, too. That motivated a few more people. But still not as many as you’d hope.

We couldn’t even seem to grasp that it was worth it to try not to get sick — even if our own chances of being able to survive might be high — because our chances would be too high of infecting someone else with higher odds of struggling or dying, whether that’s someone we know and love or someone we don’t know, but that someone else somewhere surely loves.

It’s nearly the end of a year it was easy to hate. This pandemic won’t end when the ball drops in Times Square, but we’ve already had a lot of opportunity throughout 2020 to think about what we wish had been different. We have time to think about what we’re grateful for, and what, if anything, that gratitude obligates us to do for others. Now’s our chance to think about what we’ll take into 2021, and how we’ll allow our gratitude to guide us into becoming better versions of ourselves: how we can channel gratitude into compassion and care for others, into action, and into protection. A year like this demands it of us.

Thank you for reading. Please “clap” enthusiastically and share widely if you found this piece interesting or meaningful.

Kate O’Neill, founder of KO Insights, is an author and speaker focused on helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and making technology better for business and for humans. Her work explores digital transformation from a human-centric approach, as well as how data and technology are shaping the future of meaningful human experiences. Her latest books are Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans (2018) and Pixels and Place: Connecting Human Experience Across Digital and Physical Spaces (2016).

Speaker, author, expert on better tech for business & people, & transformation—digital & otherwise. @kateo.

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