Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Grateful Heart

It would be easy for me think that I Know Something.

My life is pretty good. And while there have been some rough patches, nothing bad has ever come into my life without my invitation. The bad patches in my life are my own damn fault, my own bad choices biting me in the rump.

So I could take credit for that. My professional success? My blinding teacher skills and professional acumen. My successful second marriage? I now know all the secrets of a good relationship. My lack of health problems? A well-lived healthy life style. Not being arrested, detained or physically abused by the authorities? I always behave according to the rules and do as I'm suppose to.

Americans (particularly white ones) are prone to a lack of gratitude which in turn hardens the heart and muffles empathy. Everything I have, the reasoning goes, I have because I earned it. I got what I deserve." From there it's not even half a step to looking at people who are having a hard time with the assumption that they, too, have gotten what they deserve. This is the world view at the steely heart of some conservatism-- some people are bad people who make bad decisions, and bleeding heart liberals are trying to thwart the natural order of things by protecting these people from the natural consequences of their poor choices. Welfare programs are about undoing the poverty that some lowlifes have earned, and if they don't suffer for their bad choices, how will they ever learn to do better. Birth control and abortion are about slutty women avoiding the consequences of their nasty sex-loving ways. If immigrants were meant to be American, they would have been born here-- why try to undo what nature has done? The business world grows out of the natural moral code of the universe, based on the fundamental truth that people should get what they deserve-- and no more.

This is especially a trap for teachers, whose job come grading time can feel a lot like deciding what students deserve. It's crazy making, and it tricks us into sitting in judgment of students as human beings, which is no place to be. My deal with myself was always that I would not try to judge what they deserved, but only assess what they had actually done. It was not my job to sit as judge and jury, making sure they got what they deserved.

Well, nobody gets what they deserve. Use every man after his desert, says Hamlet, and who would escape whipping? I don't deserve a tenth of what I have gotten, and continue to get out of life. And one really doesn't have to look hard in today's world to see that there is no apparent correlation between moral uprightness and the acquisition of money and power. But many of us keep assuming that if someone is rich, they must also be wise and good and deserving (and when they offer to fix education, we should listen to them).

And yes, there are people who don't get what they deserve-- to be treated with respect, to be free from abuse, to live without being beaten down for no reason. Do they still receive some measure of grace? It's not for me to judge that, but it is for to ask if I should be helping by delivering some of that grace myself.

Thanksgiving weirdly reminds us of this problem. We've come to understand that the old story, filled with moral clarity and historical ignorance, doesn't hold up. But what instead? The Pilgrims and Puritans were no saints, but neither were the native Americans, and the whole ugly mess of European colonial history in North America is a reminder that looking for clear-cut heroes in history is a fool's game. We all, to greater and lesser degrees, suck, and we have always sucked, and getting into arguments about who sucked the worst can be terribly time wasting. On Thanksgiving, I prefer to recommit myself to a simple set of propositions:

1) I have received, and continue to receive, far more than I deserve...
2) Therefor, I must owe someone-- the world, God, fellow humans, somebody-- a great deal
3) Therefor, I had better get to work paying off my debt.

We are all diners enjoying a meal we can't afford at an expensive restaurant. We should be committed to washing a ton of dishes.

Our motto should be "there but for the grace of God go I." We should be grateful for what we have, and that thankful heart should be filled with the impulse to help others, to watch out for the people around us, to take care of our fellow travelers as best we can before we finally run out of time. I don't deserve what I've been given, but I can't send it back-- all I can do is pass it on. I can harden myself into a bitter person who worries each day if I got what I wanted, and what was keeping me from it, or I can ask each day if I did enough, gave enough, to pay today's installment on my debt. My privileges come with an obligation to do for other people. Life's challenge, of course, is to figure out what that means in practical, day to day terms. That is where love comes in, but this is enough heavy lifting for a food-based holiday.


  1. “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”

    Our judgments are incomplete so we opt for mercy instead.