Something Precious

Something Precious

Photograph by Rita Puig-Serra Costa / Connected Archives


words by willow defebaugh

The act of gratitude can be a difficult task in the midst of disaster. How do we use our appreciation for the planet to propel us forward, replacing complacency with the action to protect it?


“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Meister Eckhart

Dear reader, there is a subject that has evaded me since I started writing to you. Each time I prepare to wade into its waters, I inevitably talk myself out of it. Given the other themes I have explored over the years, all the perils and pearls of wisdom that populate our planet, it feels ludicrous that this one has remained elusive. But when I sat down to write this newsletter—the 200th edition, as it happens—I knew the time had finally come to reflect on gratitude.


Lately, I’ve been diving into The Overview’s archive for a special project (more on this soon!). In every word, I see what I was working through at the time—as well as the imperfections I wish I could change. Similarly, when I began writing these, I was in a dramatically different place in my life. As I moved through my transition, I had to process a wave of grief for what I felt was decades of time lost. Desperately, I wished that I could alter the past: to go back and pull my younger self to the surface, to tell her she didn’t need to stay submerged for so long. 


But gradually, those longings have given way to a wider view. Who knows what would have unfolded if I had set sail on my journey earlier? If I went back and changed this vessel for another, would I have missed out on the other experiences that helped shape me? Would I have been as prepared for the tempestuous trials that come with transitioning? Would Atmos still have been born? Would we have passed over this precious connection we share with one another, these messages in a bottle? What oceans of meaning might I have missed out on?


It’s easy to wish we had charted another course, but impossible to say what treasures we might have lost out on along the way. So I’m practicing gratitude for all the time I have spent at sea, however winding. The imperfections in my story, the irritants in the oyster that eventually produced more pearls than I can count. Of course, there’s plenty of psychological research to back up the spiritual platitudes that gratitude leads to a happier life. It can help people foster positive emotions, build resilience, grow relationships, and even improve their health.


Part of why I have resisted this topic is that it’s hard to talk about being thankful in the face of systems we know must urgently be unmade. To even suggest it requires acknowledging the massive privilege we have to do so. At the same time, the enemy of gratitude—desire—is the seabed of those very institutions. A mindset of extraction, a lack of thankfulness for all this planet provides is what has led to centuries of pillaging it. The conquest of consumption is driven by exploiting human desire, the notion that we will only be happy if we get this and that. 


And so gratitude is not a binary issue—nor should it be confused with complacency. If blind acceptance were the answer, nothing would ever change. I might have stayed on the shores to which I was born despite the rising tides. We can have our sights set on new horizons while still finding fulfillment along the way, treasure among the ruin. We can cherish the beauty of the present and let that move us to protect it. That’s how we sustain such a lifelong journey; appreciation for the Earth can be the wind in our sails, a momentous force all its own.


The prefix trans means “on or to the other side of: across or beyond.” I clasp that elucidation lovingly in hand, a reminder that the voyage itself is more precious than arriving on any shore. That it’s actually everything. Holding this perspective is how I practice being grateful even amid a sea of reasons not to be—even when storms and whelming waves inevitably arise. I do so with a phrase that I whisper to my every swell and sorrow, to all the people and places I have known, my past selves with all their iridescent imperfections: thank you for carrying me here.

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