Thanks for Dirty Dishes. And Taxes.

Paying taxesWeird as it sounds, using tax-time to count your blessings may boost your mental health.          

As April heats up and that midnight-on-the-15th deadline approaches, even the most civic minded of us can end up feeling stressed and crabby about taxes. An estimated twenty-five percent of households (like mine) procrastinate until the last two weeks to take care of a task that can feel like an annual headache. As odd as it may sound in this context, reframing those tax forms as an opportunity to count your personal blessings and America’s blessings might be a mental health lifesaver.

Seem silly?  It’s worth your time to keep reading, because research shows that deliberately counting blessings or keeping “gratitude lists” has a host of mental health benefits, and a habit of gratitude reduces negative affect like irritability, stress, and depression. And, actually, when we can get ourselves in the right frame of mind there’s a surprising lot to be thankful for.

My cousin Robyn is a hard working mother of three whose joints don’t function as well as they once did. In fact, they hurt. A lot. The day-to-day can be a challenge, and most people in her situation do a fair bit of grumbling. But Robyn recently posted on Facebook: Lord, I thank You for dirty clothes, muddy shoes, messy rooms, a dusty house, tired legs, aching knees, and taxes. I thank You that I have clothes, shoes, a room to make a mess in, a house to get dirty, legs that work, knees that bend and a free country in which I can pay taxes. 

Dirty DishesHer words transported me all the way back to my childhood, to the 1962 tract house where I shared a room with two sisters, and a bathroom with another two brothers, and kitchen chores with the whole family except the left of the kitchen sink was frequently stacked high with items waiting to be scrubbed, and the drainer seemed always full. But on the other side of the sink, attached to the upper cabinet, was a little sign that read, Thank God for dirty dishes; they have a tale to tell; while others may be hungry; we’re eating very well. . . . As a short child up to my elbows in soapy water, I liked the sign and I liked washing dishes, and I still like them both—most of the time–to this day.

Taxes - rural-school-in-guatemalaI first broadened my appreciation from dirty dishes to taxes on a trip to Guatemala. My husband and I were winding our way up unpaved mountain roads in a “retired” American school bus, three to a seat, knees to our chests, on our way to language school in the highland village of Todos Santos. As the bus ground around gullies and erosion and potholes, it struck me, rather hard, that we get something for our tax money. The thought struck again when, once settled with a village family, we visited the local grade school. There, children were attempting to learn math, reading and writing without such basics as textbooks and paper, let alone the brightly colored posters and media and other learning tools I had taken for granted as a child. I’ve had a Canadian attitude toward taxes ever since (well, at least when my better self is in charge).

The Guatemalan roads and school may have brought the pattern into focus, but really, it was my parents who sketched the lines. If any bunch of five kids were primed to appreciate the bounty that we Americans share and that our taxes sustain, it was us. Public school classrooms that did have books and paper gave way each spring to summers spent traversing the interstate highway system, hiking and sleeping in state parks and poking through small town museums and stretching out on picnic benches in a roadside rest stops. America_The_BeautifulWe saw astounding wonders–the Grand Canyon and the Mississippi River, Carlsbad Caverns, the Badlands–and got our heads filled with history at old monuments like Montezuma’s Castle and the Vicksburg Civil War cemetery. We slogged single file in scruffy boots up Pikes Peak and through Maroon Bells wilderness with backpacks on and eventually learned to love it.

mama's bank accountAs a teen, I read a book called Mama’s Bank Account about a Norwegian immigrant family scraping by in San Francisco at the turn of the century. Week after week, they carefully count out money to cover expenses, and the mother comments how good it is that they don’t have to take money from their bank account. Only after the children are grown do they find that the bank account doesn’t exist; Mama has made it up to give them a sense of security and prosperity. For me as a child, the delicious knowledge that I was a part owner, albeit a very small shareholder, in America the Beautiful was my equivalent of Mama’s bank account. When life felt overwhelming, I imagined those highways and parks, familiar and beautiful, all places I was allowed to be because I had been born in the Land of the Free. To this day when I travel to other countries and natural wonders like caves or geysers are fenced off with private property signs and exorbitant entry fees the child in me protests: But, but they’re supposed to belong to everyone!

As one who has received so many benefits from this country, it pains me sometimes how much of our national conversation is about taxes. It’s like going into a department store where the merchandise is all hidden behind enormous price tags. Our representatives spend so much time quarreling about who’s going to carry what share of the tax “burden”, that there’s no time left for the dish-washing-mess-scrubbing every day work that it takes to keep our communities great. americandreams_400We get so ground down from fighting with each other that we have a hard time coming together to ask the important questions: What do we want for our children? What do we want for our community? What do we want for our country? We put so much emotional energy into nursing resentment about those so called “burdens” that we sometimes forget how astoundingly much we have received, both from those who came before us and from this extraordinary land of purple mountains and spacious skies.

gratitudeRobyn’s Facebook prayer and my mother’s sign both were notes to self. They were small acts of commitment to living deliberately in a sense of bounty and gratitude, even when knees are sore and hands are chapped and the housekeeping seems endless. Affirmations like theirs get us out of our normal way of thinking and focus us on life’s goodness and they have clear health and mental health benefits for us and people around us. Cultivating gratitude leads to better sleep, greater goal attainment, better relationships, more mutual support, and a stronger love life.

native american gratitude.Gratitude as a life posture or a sense of being “blessed” is something that religious people talk about mostly in church and secular people like me who have given up that traditional forum and vocabulary mostly keep to ourselves. But Robyn, in her note, did an interesting thing. By adding taxes to her list she crossed a boundary. Not the boundary between church and state—that one’s been crossed plenty of late—but the boundary between civic life and spiritual life. I wonder what it would it mean for our country if more of us said, to a God or to the universe, I thank You that I have roads to maintain, schoolbooks to buy, a sewer to mend, rivers and mountains to protect and a free country in which I can pay taxes.

Republished with permission from TruthOut.org

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington.  She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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5 Responses to Thanks for Dirty Dishes. And Taxes.

  1. Published at Truthout.org, “Thanks for Dirty Dishes. And Taxes.” http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/15547-grateful-for-dirty-dishes-and-taxes

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  2. LAPhil13 says:

    Great article. I have been a fan of paying taxes for a long time. I saw at Truthout.org that the comments turned into a miserable discussion on how taxes are spent, and while we can all disagree on that, the essence of your article is inspiring. We must remember the common good that we receive (however compromised it may be at any given time) in exchange for the money we pay. It is not “robbing” us of our hard-earned money, it is simply a way to ensure that we pay what is fair for the bounty that we have.

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  3. Kent says:

    Valerie, you are a wonderful writer with a beautiful attitude regarding taxes. However, taxes are not necessary to fund the common needs of a people. Theoretically, a people, through their government, could spend the necessary funds into existence. This is what the early American colonists did prior to the Revolutionary War. In Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free Ellen Brown explains: “The new paper money did more than make the colonies independent of the British bankers and their gold. It actually allowed the colonists to finance their local governments without taxing the people.” (p. 38 3rd edition revised and expanded)

    Even if spending money into existence directly is denied a state or local government, they could still, again theoretically, borrow the needed funds into existence at close to 0% interest through a state or community bank. North Dakota is the only USA state doing this and is the only US state not struggling with debt.

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    • Hi Kent –
      Thank you. To my mind what you are describing is an alternate form of taxation. No matter how you look at it, some portion of whatever value is produced needs to be directed to the infrastructure that makes an economic system and thriving society possible: rule of law, transportation systems, mechanisms for information flow, smart management of shared assets, common defense and security, diplomacy, etc. Government, meaning joint action and administration, is a means by which we do things that we can’t very effectively do alone. Without these things, economic activity is stunted and limited in its complexity, as it is in every country where government is nonexistent or corrupted (e.g. Madagascar). I myself am concerned that the U.S. democracy is being bought and sold to the point that it no longer is government for the people and instead increasingly redirects our shared resources and our public servants to serve rich individuals and multi-national corporations that can afford to buy influence.

      But way you look at it, independent of how corrupted our system has become, some percent of what is produced needs to be re-invested in the public goods I listed, and whether it’s a matter of generating interest from a state bank (which might be a good idea) or requiring an inheritance or income tax, it all really still a tax. There are pros and cons to different systems of taxation. Some create a more even distribution of wealth, some create more incentives for innovation and hard work, some provide incentives for social good–or the opposite–incentives for externalizing costs on other people or future generations. There definitely are better and worse ways to go at it, and whether we are funding our public goods and administration in the best possible way is a question that we need to keep asking.

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      • Kent says:

        “I myself am concerned that the U.S. democracy is being bought and sold to the point that it no longer is government for the people and instead increasingly redirects our shared resources and our public servants to serve rich individuals and multi-national corporations that can afford to buy influence.”

        You’ve put your finger on the crux of our problems. This is why I included the word “theoretically”. Those rich individuals and multi-national corporations (or whomever pulls the economic strings) won’t allow governments to spend money into existence. Cheerful tax paying by commoners probably is psychologically beneficial. But it won’t solve our problems.

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