Imagine you have been asked to catalog all of the good things in your life, tasked with assembling a gratitude list. Sounds good, right? Living with an attitude of gratitude is one of those rare pieces of advice that practically everyone, regardless of beliefs or background, seems to endorse. Making such lists can be a key to living a joyous, serene, loving and productive life.
The highlights of my list would include being born free in a democratic society to sane and responsible parents who loved me, fed me, clothed me, educated me, supported me and taught me. I’m grateful that I and my family always had access to good schools and jobs and housing. I’m grateful for policing and health care systems that have mostly been in my corner, even when, as a fat smoker and abuser of drugs and alcohol and a generally lawless youth, I might easily have been targeted for prosecution or persecution rather than support. I’m grateful that my daughter has enjoyed the same benefits I did, like safe and enriching schools and fair treatment from the powers that be.
It feels good to type such a list. It feels good to acknowledge all we have to be thankful for.
But you can assign the very same chore by a different name, by asking me to “check my privilege” as part of a discussion of racial and socioeconomic justice, and my instinctive reaction is bristling indignation.
“I work hard!” I think, when asked to contemplate my privilege. “I haven’t had it so easy!”
And deep down in the shadowy recesses of my brain I hear, as a fully abled, healthy and heterosexual white male from a safely middle-class background, that hissing reptilian voice that says, “This is one of those conversations about how much I have, and changing the world so I have less. And while I know I have a lot, I often feel I don’t have enough, and less would be bad. Because less would be . . . less.”
Asked to make a gratitude list, my heart swells with joy and security and a desire to help others achieve that same joy and security. Asked to catalogue and confront my privilege, my heart shrinks into selfishness, into a desire to hoard all I have and covet all I lack.
But the two lists themselves are the same, the two tasks identical.
This nation is at a perilous point, embroiled in an argument over racial injustice and police violence, socioeconomic inequality and unbalanced opportunity, weighed down by feelings of we and they, us and them, yours and mine. In that environment, it becomes easy to forget that we can provide justice and opportunity and a fair shot for everyone without snatching those things from anyone.
Making the schools of poor and minority students better need not make anyone’s school worse. Ending systemic racism against black and brown people by police and prosecutors and the courts would not make policing of white people less fair. Giving the employment or rental or loan applications of people with black- or foreign-sounding names or voices a fair shake would not deprive white people of rights. Giving women a full voice and unlimited path in workplaces would not stymie men’s voices or paths.
Nearly everybody in the United States, of every color and creed, can make a list of things in their life to be grateful for. We should devote ourselves and our society to assuring everyone has those rights and freedoms and advantages and chances.
And turn privileges into blessings.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.