Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

Even at my age, I think I’d do well on the local basketball team

I’m a grumbler. Why does my hip hurt so much today, why didn’t that editor respond to my query, why is our government run by madmen and thieves? I’m so used to my brain’s radio playing Classic Grouch in 24/7 rotation that I can barely hear it, even though my legs dance to it.

But once in a while, when fresh winds blow from a different direction, when my closed lids see that there’s actually a rainbow of colors, when I get out of my own #$%!@&^!! way, I realize that this life stuff might be OK. That there might be good reason to cheer, to celebrate, to acknowledge.

I was reminded of that in a church soup kitchen in the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador a few days ago. My galpal Alice and I are house-sitting for a month in Cotacachi, at the home of some expats from Atlanta. Cotacachi has many charms, friendly folks, good food, famed leather-goods artisans, and some beautiful surroundings at 8,000 feet in the Andes.

A Little Means a Lot

But all places have their poor. Before our Atlanta homeowners left for a stateside visit, they took us to the Lugar de Esperanza (Place of Hope) soup kitchen where they volunteer to help with food preparation, serving and cleanup of a large breakfast meal to 50–60 indigenous seniors from the town and surrounds.

Most of these people have very little: tiny incomes, tough living conditions, scant belongings. A few even walk a couple of hours to get the meal, which might be their only meal of the day. Some of them are barefoot. The volunteers first hand out vitamins to the gathered souls in the church courtyard, and then they proceed into the soup kitchen building to sit in rows at long tables.

On their way to the building, nearly all of them greeted Alice and I, clasped our hands and smiled and laughed. My Spanish is bad enough, but my Quechua (and all the variants) is non-existent. However, the communication was clear—good cheer and gratitude in all the faces, the body language, the talk among themselves.

They sat at the tables and chatted, and waited patiently waiting for grace to be said by one of the breakfast recipients. At the end of the meal, they filtered out, some with leftover food, again clasping our hands and nodding and thanking us, in Quechua and Spanish. One old guy even kissed my cheek when I bent to shake his hand.

Gratitude Is Better Than Kale

I’m used to my regular meals, my shelter, my health. It’s easy to forget just how good I have it;
gringo privilege is as unconscious as that grumpiness I mentioned. But the thin air up here in Cotacachi let me see clearly that gratitude is an attitude, one that can be encouraged and summoned and cultivated. And my goodness, it can even be good for you.

Alice went back and helped serve one of the meals a few days later; I hope to do it as well. She reported that the group was much the same, in manner and attitude. They appreciated the breakfast, and felt appreciated by the volunteers who appreciated them, a two-way street. That’s a street I need to drive on more often.

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11 thoughts on “Gratitude Comes from a Place of Hope

  1. My spiritual perspective has the built-in habit of putting others first in a way that keeps it foremost in my thinking processes even when I’m feeling curmudgeonly. (“When aren’t you?”, the enlightened reader asks.) Giving is a guaranteed antidote to the whiny crankies, and I’m glad my life led to a situation where it’s part of my routine. You might not guess that I’m not naturally generous, but even as a learned trait one can get good at it with enough decades of practice.

  2. Joel, making giving part of your identity is insightful; that seems like it could provoke a regular 360-degrees-of-gratitude effect: the sound of four hands clapping in appreciation—yours as giver/receiver and theirs as receiver/giver. (Don’t ask any English professors to parse that sentence.)

    I need to structure my own spasmodic generosity into something more structural like that. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Beautiful, Tom.
    Your thoughts remind me of what the Buddhist Abbott said at the end of the film The Cup:
    “All the trouble in the world … clinging to the “I” has created it.”

  4. There is nothing more gratifying than to serve your fellow man. You do it because it needs to be done.

  5. What the poor and indigenous people in Cotacachi need most is funding for the thoughtful program proposals they created and now have in place to meet their own priorities. It makes foreign volunteers feel wonderful inside to give generously in ways that meet their own personal needs, to be shown gratitude from the people with their big smiles and sweet hugs. But there are countless indigenous leaders in Cotacachi who already have prioritized other projects for which they need economic help from foreigners: clean, potable and sufficient water supplies in their agricultural communities, youth leadership programs, sustainable tourism projects, anti-violence and anti-suicide programs delivered by indigenous professionals, and the urgently needed transmission of cultural knowledge and language from elders to youth before the culture dies. All of these priorities desperately need funding (plata), the one thing the runa do not have. Very few foreigners take time to find out what the indigenous communities need before they start their own programs. Almost none include indigenous people on their Board of Directors. And not one has made the effort to learn the Kichwa language so that they can truly enter the culture and communicate with the elders. There is nothing wrong with feeding and helping poor elderly indigenous people, but there is so much more that foreigners could be doing.

  6. Urku, well said! Your pointing out that not having indigenous people on boards that determine the scope and funding of programs is a problem; hearing directly (and being influenced by hearing) from the indigenous is the clearest way to understand needs and issues. You sound like you have spent some time assessing where assets might be best used—are there community meetings of any kind where indigenous and other Ecuadorians and expats meet and discuss community matters?

    I do know someone there is teaching a Kichwa class (my girlfriend Alice went to one)—perhaps that could be promoted with more vigor? However, learning a new language as an adult can be intimidating—I’m trying to learn Spanish with a great app (Duolingo), and my ancient brain doesn’t seem to have the flexibility it once had. But I am learning something.

    The soup kitchen is a fine thing, but as you point out, so much more could be done, to the benefit of the entire community. I’m back in California now, but I hope to come to Cotacachi again sometime in the future. I hope you have a chance to express these thoughts where they might do some good, and bring good people together. Thanks.

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