Learning to be Grateful

I know it’s not quite the season, but I have Thanksgiving on the brain. What’s not to love about it? A hearty serving of food, family, and football is topped off with memories of making construction paper turkeys in kindergarten and some vague, semi-historical narrative about the Pilgrims. In the moment before we begin the Thanksgiving feast, we might even remember to take a moment to think about things that we’re thankful for.

Honestly, it’s easier to not be thankful. To be thankful, one must intentionally acknowledge what they have in life and recognize how their life might be otherwise. Think about all the factors which go into a meal at the Andrew Commons. Think of the magnificent Warch Center, to whose construction we students contributed nothing. Think of all the workers who produce our food and the drivers who bring it to our campus. Think of the Bon Appétit staff workers who swipe us in, prepare our food, serve it to us, and wash our dishes and wipe our tables. All this is accessed through our meal plans, which is at least in my own case paid for by my parents.

Although I can take credit for exactly zero of the factors in this process, I almost never stop and simply think about how lucky I am to eat at the Andrew Commons. What’s more, I sometimes find myself actually complaining about some experience with Bon Appétit’s food service. “I can’t believe that this grilled cheese, which is fully paid for by my parents and is created from quality ingredients at my request while I wait in a temperature-controlled café in a first world nation, is taking so long to cook!”

I think it’s clear that my thankless, entitled attitude toward food is actually what causes me frustration. As my sense of entitlement grows, so too does the chance that my expectations won’t be met and that I’ll be frustrated. I suspect that you, dear average Lawrentian reader, also experience frustration precisely because of your own attitude of entitlement.

Of course, I can’t speak of any one person, especially in a venue like this. Maybe you’ve never personally experienced any entitlement-related angst. If that’s so, you have my sincere congratulations. However, if you make an honest assessment of different aspects of your life, you’ll probably find that you have far more than you really have any need of. Think of how you might resent needing to transfer to a “less prestigious college” or having a smaller dorm room or getting a stain on your favorite shirt, even though there are plenty of other fine colleges, a smaller room would be perfectly live-able, and you own plenty of other good shirts.

We’re sometimes asked to think of those who are less fortunate than us, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s more interesting, though, to ponder the fact that we have anything at all. G.K. Chesterton, who I’ll fully admit I quote too much, puts it this way: “The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” Chesterton obviously wasn’t thinking of smaller-scale thankfulness, like thanking a specific person for handing me a grilled cheese. Rather, he was thinking of a more cosmic kind of thankfulness: why should I have the privilege to taste anything at all? He believed that, as Thomas Merton put it, “every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love.”

To be a Christian is, in a way, to embrace this sense of cosmic gratitude. We’re called to understand how much we’ve already been given, and to give thanks for it. As Marc Barnes puts it, “life is probably a gift,” and the best things in life — redemption from sin, new life in the Spirit, and for Catholic types the Eucharist — are not free, but they’re freely given to us through God’s love and grace. At many poor African churches, people leap and sing for joy. In an increasingly secular America, we gripe about outdated cell phones.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual hindrances of wealth and tells a rich young man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. In the Beatitudes, he proclaims that “blessed are the poor in spirit.” The connection, I think, is clear: our attitudes about what we have affect our happiness. To be happy, we first need to be grateful.