Five years after founding The Gratitude Campaign, I've received over 10,500 e-mails, and 1,500 comments on YouTube. It seems that there is a lot to talk about with regard to gratitude for those who serve; not the least of which is the ever present challenge of understanding how to keep the politics out of it. Hopefully this blog will give us an opportunity for some rational, reasonable, and respectful discussion. I hope you'll join us...

~Scott Truitt, FOUNDER


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Gift Giving

This was a particularly interesting Christmas for my wife and me. You see, we have a tradition in my family of exchanging Christmas wish lists with the rest of our extended family over the Thanksgiving weekend so that we know what everyone wants for Christmas as we begin our holiday shopping. This started out with very good intentions – we wanted to be sure that what we bought for each other for Christmas were things that we truly wanted, and not just money wasted on something that would end up in the closet, given away or sold at a garage sale. Unfortunately, as the years have passed what started out as gracious communication has become an obligation – an obligation to come up with a list of things that we want that are A) meaningful to us enough that they would be fun for others to give, but also B) at a reasonable price such that they are affordable and reasonable to ask for; and subsequently the obligation to buy things off others’ lists for them. Christmas shopping has become more of a rote task or to-do, and less of a joyful expression of love.

Year after year, it seems, it is getting harder and harder to come up with things to put on our lists. I mean, we’re adults – if we want something, we go get it. We don’t put it on a wish list in the hopes that someone will buy it for us at Christmas, which might be months away. And if we don’t buy it for ourselves, it’s probably because it is a little spendy and we can’t justify the expense. In which case, if we can’t justify purchasing it for ourselves, we certainly can’t ask others to buy it for us at Christmas when they are already buying for 10 to 20 other people as well. So, in the past, we have forced ourselves to come up with a list of things that we “wouldn’t mind having” that are still reasonably priced; which is to say a list of things that we have already determined are not important enough to us to buy for ourselves, and we could essentially take or leave. The knowledge that our family is spending their hard-earned money to buy us things that we can take or leave, and that we are doing the same for them for no other reason than to satisfy the tradition of giving gifts on Christmas day has been hard for us to justify. This year we just hit a wall, and we couldn’t do it.

Now, it’s not that I have some philosophical issue with gift giving – to the contrary, I think it’s wonderful and I thoroughly enjoy the Christmas season. I am particularly fond of “A Christmas Carol” – the version with George C. Scott made in 1984. One of my favorite lines from that movie is when Scrooge’s nephew is inviting him to dinner, and he says:

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable time; when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely to their fellow man. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver into my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and I say God bless it!”

Gift giving is a wonderful expression of our willingness to open our shut-up hearts, to think of others as much or more than we think of ourselves, and to show our appreciation and love for the people in our lives. And I recall many years when I was really excited about giving a particular gift to a particular person – just anticipating seeing the look on their face when they open the package. Unfortunately, those times are getting fewer and farther apart as joy turns to obligation. The gifts seem to be getting increasingly trivial and meaningless – to both the giver and the receiver.

So this year, when asked what I wanted for Christmas, I told my family that I was immediately reminded of a song by the Goo Goo Dolls called “Better Days”. The lyric I heard in my head was:

“And you ask me what I want this year
And I try to make this kind and clear
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days
Cuz I don't need boxes wrapped in strings
And designer love and empty things
Just a chance that maybe we'll find better days”

I told my family that what I would really like is for them to donate their time or money to a charity of their choice; then I would like them to buy or write me a card telling me who they donated to, and why that was meaningful to them. That story would be my gift. It turned out to be more profound an experience than I could have imagined.

Among other members of my family who donated to various charities, my mother and father donated what they would have spent on my wife and me to a single mother and her three children that had lost their home due to floods two years ago. They are now bankrupt and living in a friend’s basement. This alone was enough to bring a tear to my eyes – something no other gift had done in as many years as I could remember. But there was more.

My mother also wrote me a letter telling me about an experience she had had while eating lunch on a day out of shopping. She saw a woman on the corner outside the restaurant holding a sign that said, “Hard Times; Need Help.” So she walked up to the woman and said, “Tell me about your hard times.” The woman explained that she had lost her job two weeks prior, and that she was the sole support for her 20 year old son and his infant son. They were living together in an apartment, but were very concerned that they might soon lose it. It was 29 degrees out, and the woman was clearly cold. My mother asked her if she had had any lunch. She said that she had a sandwich about an hour prior. My mother asked her if she could use a warm drink. The woman said yes, and so my mother went and bought her one and brought it back. After listening to the woman’s story, sympathizing with her, and wishing her “better days”, my mother handed the woman a $20 bill and a packet of tissues for her nose, and wished her a happy holiday.

What was most striking to me about this story, and I believe most meaningful to my mother, was not that she bought her a drink, or gave her $20 when most of us would have felt charitable giving $2, but that she listened to this woman. She acknowledged her as a fellow human being, respected her, sympathized with her, and connected with her. Here was this woman who, on the surface, my mother had nothing in common with. But through a little conversation and mutual respect, my mother found commonality – they were both mothers trying to care for their families.

The gift that my mother gave me through this experience was the knowledge that what was spent on me was meaningful, and it made a difference in the world. The $20 she gave that woman would have bought me a DVD that would have collected dust on my shelf most of the year. But to this woman, $20 may have made the difference between having electricity this month or not; paying rent or not; feeding her children or not. By connecting with this woman, even for a moment, my mother reminded us all that we are more alike with our fellow man than we are different. And if we can just set our assumptions aside for a moment and open up our shut-up hearts to each other, we can discover ourselves in others.

As you consider those who serve to protect and defend our Freedom, I’d encourage you to remember the gift that they are giving to you – the gift of Freedom. This is a very expensive gift for them to give. Your gift to them is to make it meaningful – use it, cherish it, respect it. And pass it on – pay it forward - whenever and wherever you can.

Monday, December 14, 2009

On Narrow-mindedness

Today I received the following comment posted to our YouTube page:

“why are we thanking them again??? for killing innocent people, raping women and killing kids? maybe "fuck you" would be a better thing to say.. and we all know the sign...”

This came at an interesting time for me because I am currently engaged in an ongoing e-mail conversation with a woman who also posted a comment to our YouTube page. Hers was in response to a Viet Nam Veteran who had posted several comments about how significantly differently we Americans are treating those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in comparison to how we treated our Veterans returning from Viet Nam forty years ago. He shared just how difficult his life had been as result of being mistreated and misunderstood upon his return, having been spit upon and called “baby killer”, and how that experience had defined his life since. This woman posted the following response to him:

“…we (the war protestors of the Vietnam era) screwed up badly by blaming the Soldiers for the atrocious politics which produced that war. What happened to [a Viet Nam Veteran] was horrible and unwarranted and repeated many times. I've felt badly about blaming the troops, not their handlers, for 40 years. I apologize, for what little it's worth now.“

Two years, 8,000 e-mails, and 1,100 YouTube comments after starting thegratitudecampaign, this is the first person that I have observed taking ownership of the mistakes (albeit well-intentioned) of the protestors of the Viet Nam era and apologizing for them. This takes a big person to do – it is much easier to hang your head low, keep quiet, and pretend that you had nothing to do with it. Nobody would know. I am incredibly grateful to this woman for not doing that. She is not only setting a wonderful example for us all in recognizing our mistakes, owning them, and learning from them, but she is also helping to enlighten a new generation of protestors not to make the same mistakes again. Unfortunately for some, this recognition and admission comes too late, as is exemplified by this gentleman above.

One of the most striking aspects of war protest in my observation has been that the protestors, who presumably believe in Peace, and Love, and Compassion, often become so passionate about their cause and so incensed by the struggle that they become the very thing they are fighting to overcome. Such is the case with the gentleman above. He is so passionate about his perceived wrongs done by our Troops that his response is, “Fuck you.” Them’s fightin’ words where I come from. And the Peace movement hippies of the late sixties and early seventies – many of them would turn on a dime from chanting “Make Love Not War” to spitting on some poor Soldier returning from what was an already horrific war and calling him a “baby killer”. For many of our Troops this took their already severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and multiplied it to an insurmountable life obstacle. Is that Love? Is that Compassion? Is that how we foster Peace with our fellow man?

Now, I want to be crystal clear on this point: I am not making a case here for or against war protest. I will simply say two things with regard to that: 1) That I am not a huge fan of war as a rule – I don’t think that many of us are. I think we’re better than that. And I think that we owe it to those who serve to do what we can to promote Peace, and not send them off to fight the battles that we refuse to take responsibility for ourselves. And 2) I believe that we are most successful and productive when we fight for something rather than against something. Fighting against something tends to just produce more of that thing. (How is the War on Poverty going? Or the War on Drugs?)

The compelling issue to me on this topic is not whether we support the war or protest the war, but HOW we support or protest it. Are we being honest and respectful with one another? Are we mindful of the power of our words, and using them with integrity? Are we being understanding of one another’s points of view and trying to address each other’s concerns? Or are we ignoring one another while we wait for our turn to speak and then lacing our comments with dramatic, insulting, and offensive jabs to try to break down our opponents and prove them entirely “wrong”, as if we are the sole purveyors of “right”? And when we do that, are we sacrificing even our own morals and values, applying stereotypes across the board in a vain effort to simplify our argument for our opponent, or even for ourselves?

I may be verging on rambling here, so I’ll bring this back around:

“Why are we thanking [those who serve]?” Because they defend our right to disagree. Hopefully we have the good sense to do it peacefully, respectfully, and honestly. “For killing innocent people, raping women and killing kids?” No. That’s not to say that that doesn’t happen in war. But if and when it does, it is the exception – not the rule. We have over 2.6 million people serving for us in some capacity, and over 20 million living Veterans, the vast majority of which have never served in a combat zone or fired a weapon in anger. As for how many have been accused of rape, I could not say. But I sincerely doubt that it’s any higher than the national average. I believe that our Troops make every reasonable effort to avoid those things. But I also believe that some of that is an inherent, unavoidable fact of war. War is an ugly thing. Innocent people die. We can either accept that as we send our Troops off to battle, or we can decide that that’s not acceptable to us as a society and take responsibility ourselves for solving our international disputes without going to war. But it is not a fair and reasonable solution to protest the ugliness of war by being narrow-minded, stereotypical, bigoted and abusive to those who provide our very Freedom in the first place.

“Maybe ‘fuck you’ would be a better thing to say…” Well, that depends on your intentions. If you’re looking to start a fight, then “FU” is a great way to start one. Abusive language is only a half-step away from violence. But if you believe in Peace, I’d suggest that “Thank You” will get you much further. As in, “Thank you for defending my right to speak my mind. I’m going to use that right that you gave me to work for Peace. And I’m going to do it with dignity, and respect, and integrity.” That’s how we change the world.

Friday, December 11, 2009

On War, Killing and Dying

This is a solemn subject that weighs very heavily on me. But it seemed appropriate to comment on this, especially in light of this week's acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize by a President in the precarious position of presiding over two ongoing wars. This seems a perfect example that, despite how much we all may prefer a world of absolutes, we seldom have the luxury of things being either black or white.

I want to be clear that I have never served in the armed forces. I have no personal experience with war. I have never been asked to lay my life on the line for someone else, nor bore the burden of taking another’s life. Accordingly, I would never presume to tell someone who has bore these burdens how they should feel about it. Their experience is their own, as are their feelings about it, and I have no judgments about those.

For the rest of us who stand on the sidelines and debate whether to send our Troops into battle, but do not bare that burden ourselves, I would like to offer some thoughts. And, again, not having any personal experience to draw upon, I’ll borrow some words from those who do. First, in response to those who oppose war at all costs I would offer these words from John Stuart Mill:

"War is an ugly thing, but it is not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing he cares about more than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free unless made so by the exertions of better men than himself."

Mills’ words, although perhaps a little more passionate than I would state it, are completely true. I believe that we, as human beings, can and will reach a point in our evolution when we learn how to live together in Peace, and that we will realize the futility of war. We are not there yet, unfortunately. And until we are, there will be times and places when we must be prepared to fight for what we believe is right. And we will need the service of those who are willing to stand up and fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.

Having said that, I do believe that we have reached a stage in our evolution as human beings when it is time to recognize our own responsibility for the wars that have plagued our planet for most of our known history, and to start owning the responsibility for preventing them from happening in the future. We can no longer point the finger to other countries, other governments, other leaders, or even to our own government and blame them for the violence perpetrated in our names.

There is a theory in psychology (and in some spiritual circles) that all of our decisions and actions are motivated either by Love or by Fear. That’s it – it’s one of those two. If we look at what causes war and killing, it seems a given that it is more motivated by Fear than by Love. General William C. Westmoreland put it this way:

“War is Fear cloaked in Courage.”

As we examine our interpersonal relationships, it is not difficult to recognize that when we come from a place of Love we feel strong, safe, confident, compassionate, abundant, and understanding. We are willing to bend, to meet the other half way, or even give entirely of ourselves in order to serve the greater good. When we come from a place of Fear we feel unsafe, needy, a sense of scarcity, defensive, and even aggressive. We are unwilling to bend on even the simplest of issues, and we are concerned only for our own well being. Fear is a natural thing, and it’s not always bad – a healthy dose of Fear can keep us alert and aware of potential problems. It’s when we allow the Fear to be the driver in the solutions for those problems that we become hostile and aggressive, and we allow our Fear to get the better of us. When problem solving deteriorates to violence, we have failed to deal with our Fears (and other’s Fears) in a productive way. Isaac Asimov put it this way:

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

The critical factor in our evolution as human beings is the realization that we are all one – we are part of a collective. And the energy we bring to that collective in the form of our thoughts, opinions, and feelings has an impact on the decisions and movements of the whole. We point to our political leaders and blame them for the failures to find peaceful solutions to our international issues. But in the end, our leaders are ultimately trying to serve us – to provide us with what we are demanding through our lifestyle choices. In the end, our leaders are elected by us – they work for us – and they do what we are telling them we want. We may not be telling them verbally, but we are telling them through our lifestyle choices. And so, in the end, the Fear that we most need to deal with is our own – each and every one of us – our Fear of lack, of “not enough”, of “I need more in order to be fulfilled”… our Fear of change itself. Francis Meehan put it this way:

“Men are at war with each other because each man is at war with himself.”

The irony is that every war reaches a point where people have had enough killing, enough dying, enough of the futility of destruction. But we forget. We live a few years in prosperity until we are again threatened by change, and we allow our Fear to get the better of us again. What will it take to shift our focus from Fear to Love? To make the option of loving one another more palatable than killing one another? We thought that it was going to be WWI – “the war to end all wars.” But it wasn’t. Just a few short years later the entire world engaged in an even greater war. And there have been many since. Near the end of WWII, President Roosevelt said:

“I have a suspicion that when this war does end, we shall not be in a very celebrating mood, a very celebrating frame of mind. I think that our main emotion will be one of grim determination that this shall not happen again.”

I’d like to encourage all of us to face our own Fears, and not ask others to do it for us; to embrace that grim determination that war shall not happen again; and to take personal responsibility for asking, “What can I do in my life to reduce the likelihood of wars happening in the future on my behalf” and making those changes. If we can save the planet by riding our bikes and recycling our trash, what do we need to do to prevent our deterioration to violence? Let’s find out – for ourselves, for our children, and for those who serve and bare the heaviest burden. We owe them nothing less.

“The Soldier above all others prays for Peace, for it is the Soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

-Douglas MacArthur

On Politics and Gratitude

We are currently working on some updates to our web site, one of which is a page on which I respond to the most common questions and comments that I've received in the past two years of working on The Gratitude Campaign. One of the more challenging issue that people tend to have with our video is our comment that, "It's not about politics." So I thought it appropriate to start our blog with that:

In our video, we say “It’s not about politics.” What do we mean by that? Or, as some might see it, how can we say that? Well, to put things into their simplest terms, in my observation those who believe in Peace tend to be associated with the liberal left, whereas those who support our Troops tend to be associated with the conservative right. The debates between liberal left and conservative right have become so boisterous, dramatic, and emotional that our society is becoming increasingly polarized. It seems at times that one side opposes an issue for no other reason than that the other side supports it. We often argue for the sake of arguing rather than for the sake of finding a solution that we can all live with. And as we become increasingly polarized, we often assume that if something isn't "A" it must be "Z", when in fact the truth tends to fall somewhere between "K" and "Q". And for those who would rather that things be in their simplest terms, this has led to a dynamic where those who support Peace oppose the Troops, and those who support the Troops oppose Peace. I don’t believe that this dynamic is serving us as a society. We’re more concerned with being Right than we are with being Productive – and our Troops get caught in the middle.

The truth is we all benefit from the service of our Troops, whether we be liberal left, conservative right, or somewhere in the middle. Some of us benefit more directly than others, as in the case of those rescued from a mountain climbing accident, or stranded by flood waters, or suffering from starvation in drought ridden parts of the world. But even those of us who have not had to suffer these more acute problems benefit from the service of our Troops in that, in everything that they do, they serve to defend and protect our Freedoms – not the least of which is our Freedom of Speech. I would not be able to write this now were it not for those serving to defend my Freedom. And they serve in the same fashion regardless of which political party their Commander in Chief belongs to.

While we understand that wars are powerful and controversial examples of the lowest form of political negotiation, and our Troops are obviously a part of that, we’d like to encourage people to open their minds a bit – to look beyond the current conflict and political debate. Notice that there are currently 2.6 million people serving for us in some capacity here in the United States, only 165,000 of which are in Iraq – that’s roughly 6%. That means that 94% of our military is serving in some other place, and in some other way than fighting the war in Iraq. And even those serving in Iraq did not necessarily choose to be there. In addition, there are roughly 20 million living Veterans in the United States today who served in WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Panama, Nicaragua, Somalia, and a thousand other places over the past 75 years – all of which have made us who we are today. We can debate the finer points of each of these conflicts – we have the Freedom to do that. But at the root of it all are millions of people who have committed themselves to serving their fellow man in whatever way they are called to.

So whether you’re liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Independent or Green Party, we all have a reason to be grateful to those who serve for us. And so, instead of debating the political correctness of the current conflict as though it were the only service provided by our Troops, and pointing our fingers at those who unjustly started this war or unjustly oppposed it, perhaps we should be looking ourselves in the mirror and asking what we have done with the Freedom that they have provided us with.

As I often say in my e-mail responses, if you have an opinion about our international relations, I say voice it! And if, on the way to voice it, you should pass someone who serves, perhaps you could thank them for defending your right to voice it.