Anxious Activist, Part 1: Gratitude as a Tool for Self-Care and Social Justice

For the next three weeks, I will be posting an Anxious Activist post on Wednesday afternoons, highlighting spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. This first post will focus on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.


Every night for the last six weeks, I’ve engaged in a daunting spiritual practice.

Each night, I’ve opened my pink Princess Peach journal and written down four moments for which I felt gratitude in the previous 24 hours.

They range from a clean house to a productive work day, hearing back from my therapist to playing a favorite song, even coloring a Pikachu page gifted by my colleague’s son and maintaining a collected mental state when I felt tempted to spiral out of control. My husband and his actions come up a lot, as do our Brooklyn Nine-Nine marathons and snuggling with our kitties. On particularly rough days, I find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything positive to include, but I still write it down.

Gratitude as a spiritual practice has been on my mind for several years. I remember my friends from the Pentecostal church of my youth engaging in the practice on Facebook either for the month of November or, for the more ambitious types, a full year. They would post photos with captions about their gratitudes, and I found my timeline full of snapshots of children, steaming mugs of coffee and tea, spouses, life events, and clean kitchens.

I enjoyed seeing their photos and gratitudes, but I often worried that they acted more as signs of privilege and remedies to “first-world problems” instead of actual examples of God’s grace. Since I’m a person with a significant amount of privilege as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and able-bodied person, I didn’t think it right to broadcast what was going well in my already great life and call it a manifestation of God’s favor. It didn’t seem to do any justice or provide any assistance to people with less power and privilege. Not to mention, I was already a major cynic at this time, and expressing gratitude for such “mundane things” seemed beneath me and my nihilistic worldview.

But as I began to engage more in political and social activism and dealt with the constant threat of burnout, mental exhaustion, and apathy, put into hyperdrive with my anxiety, I thought back to those past posts of gratitude and wondered if these folks were onto something.

I thought about the posts from people of privilege living in their safe and secure walls, and I also recalled the examples of grace expressed between groups of marginalized people. I thought of the Black Lives Matter youth rallying support for all victims of police brutality, the strength of LGBTQ+ siblings who continue to engage with faith communities who cannot decide if they want to include or exclude them, and the radical and vulnerable expressions of love Muslim leaders showed to victims of anti-Semitic persecution.

So when I finally decided to take up a gratitude journal, I decided not of focus solely on the tokens of privilege in my life. Instead, I learned to focus on the gracious actions done by people around me, and the moments of grace I extended to myself when I was less than “perfect.”

Practicing the art of gratitude can be a positive influence for our activism. When we note moments of grace and mercy in our lives, we become more gracious and merciful people, first to ourselves, then to each other. When we remember to accept the cup of water handed to us, we might be more inclined to share some sips from it or pour a cup for someone else in need.

This practice can also remind us we are not alone in this life or in these struggles. Noticing how others have reached out to us in our difficult times, through a message, an embrace, a gift of food, or practical assistance, we might begin to notice how even in our most anxious moments and in the most troubling times, there is someone by our sides who is with and for us. We might even become inclined to be that support for another who is marginalized, either by a systemic issue or their own trauma and pain.

And, perhaps most important of all, practicing gratitude will remind us to extend grace to ourselves. Perhaps we will be more gracious with ourselves when we deal with anxiety, burnout, failure, and other traits and results normally deemed “undesirable.” Perhaps we will learn to accept we are both holy and dust, divine beings in limited bodies and spaces, and we will learn to be gentle with instead of rough on ourselves. We need the strength to keep going, and self-expressed grace can be the balm to soothe and heal our wounds that we might otherwise seek to make worse.

And as I look at these moments of grace extended to others, I learned more about extending that same grace to myself, because how can I give a cup of water to another when my own cup is bone dry, and I am dehydrated?

Gratitude is a radical action, for the one in a position of power and the one on the margins. When we remember we all belong to one another, we express gratitude for God’s loving presence among us. When we remember we as individuals are beloved by God, in our divinity and our humanity, we express grace to ourselves when we are not at our best. And it could whet our appetite enough to seek more grace not only for ourselves, but for those to whom little grace seems to exist.


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