Thursday, November 28, 2019

Be Grateful

It's ironic, with a very American sort of irony, that we have a national holiday about thankfulness and gratitude, because we are kind of lousy at that whole thankfulness and gratitude thing.

We're more attracted to the self-made story, the I-pulled-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps story, the story that in this country, anyone can get ahead with grit, virtue and hard work (and if you haven't gotten ahead, it must be because you did not display any of these things). We're a little less "there but for the grace of God go I" and a little more "I've got mine, Jack." We don't mind the idea of paying it forward, as long as we get to pick someone deserving to pay it forward to.

The board of directors watch their
first Macy's parade. Balloons!
Our lives exist at some intersection of choice and fortune. We start with the cards that life or fortune or God or random accidents deal to us, and then we make choices from where we are and then the deck is shuffled again. It's an abrogation of responsibility to claim that we are just a leaf on the ocean, and it's a denial of reality to claim that no force is stronger in our lives than the force of our own wills. (And even the force of our will is the result of forces we don't control, but nobody else controls how we respond to that and on and on and on.)

Gratitude is, at root, a recognition that not all human beings start out on the same level playing field with the same resources and choices available to them. Gratitude is about looking at your own life and understanding that you didn't make all that (whether "that" is good or bad). Be proud that you did a good thing. Be grateful that you had the ability and opportunity.

The attitude matters because it colors the rest of our lives. The self-made person gets angry at people who fail because it's their own damn fault. They could have tried harder, been smarter. At a bare minimum, they could be satisfied about settling into what is obviously their proper station in life. This is why people like Betsy DeVos are the way they are-- they hold an axiomic belief that in life, people get what they deserve, and trying to mess with that divine distributive justice is to fly in the face of God himself.

Oh, some people will offer a kind of faux gratitude, which comes out basically as "I am grateful that I have received everything that I so richly deserve." This is gloating, not gratitude. Oddly enough, the Puritans got this--their doctrine, at least on paper, was that all any human actually deserved was to burn in hell for eternity, and anything that made your life better than that was strictly a gift from God, who gave it to you not because of who you are or what you've done, but because of who He is. You could do your best to live a good life, but under no circumstances would you be able to stand before God and declare, "You owe me this. You have to give me this." God does not owe you jack, Jack.

The fruit of true gratitude is service, kindness, generosity. True gratitude is recognizing that what you got could just have easily belonged to someone else, that you have somehow been presented with a great big benefit for which you have never been billed, and so you must owe somebody something.

Gratitude, I should also add, is personal. It is not gratitude to point at someone else and say, "Hey, you should be grateful for what you got, and let me tell you what you owe the world." I can talk about my own debt to God, other humans, the universe and everything, but I have no way of knowing what yours might or might not be.

I lead an extraordinarily fortunate and privileged life. I have, mostly, tried to make the most out of it, but I try never to forget how much I owe to other people and to circumstances that have shaped me and presented me with opportunities that I did not necessarily earn. That includes being grateful for your attention, readers, and for the chance to do and stand up for the important work of public education. And I'm grateful for all the other folks who do the same. Have a good day!

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