WE’VE ALL SINNED AGAINST GRATITUDE
LET’S TRY TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT
(The reflection below has been posted for the last three Thanksgivings.)
It’s the kind of thing one hears from people who went to Catholic school back in the 1950s — how the good nuns taught them that a complete and well balanced prayer is based on the acronym, ACTS, and includes four key elements…
Being a convert, I didn’t go to parochial school, but I would imagine that the prayers of Catholic schoolchildren back then probably contained plenty of supplication, especially at report card time. (Probably still do.)
Adoration was likely well covered also, given the pious practices in which Catholic kids of the ’50s were steeped. Just how much true contrition there was would’ve been anybody’s guess. But it’s the element of thanksgiving which I’d assume was least present.
Were we ’50s youngsters (Catholic or otherwise) grateful for the blessings we enjoyed? Our parents were always telling us we didn’t appreciate how much we had — at least in comparison with the deprivations they endured. After all, they’d struggled through the Great Depression, and had to walk ten miles to school everyday.
In the snow.
(That last part I used to tell my kids too, and they didn’t believe it any more than I did.)
Thankfulness is probably in as short supply now as it was then. Maybe shorter. The national holiday dedicated to focusing on that virtue has always involved a struggle between gratitude and gluttony. And this conflict has long been highly visible.
An unexpected controversy erupted when “The Four Freedoms,” a famous series of paintings by the great illustrator, Norman Rockwell, was exhibited overseas after World War II. The image depicting “Freedom from Want” — which showed an abundant American Thanksgiving dinner — was seen in starved, post-war Europe as an icon of American self-indulgence.
Today, as Thanksgiving is increasingly encroached upon by the peculiar burst of shopping hysteria known as “Black Friday,” the view of those deprived post-war Europeans seems prescient.
Of course, even “Black Friday” can be looked at in different ways. The hardy, bargain-hunting folk who camp out in the cold for days in front of Target might actually be upholding a certain kind of noble frugality. Though that notion is somewhat undermined by the occasional in-store violence that hints at motives of acquisitiveness in the extreme.
Indeed, the “Black Friday” name itself is evolving from a reference to profitability (as accountants put it, operating in the black) to a suggestion of abject terror in the face of belligerent materialism.
We all fail at thankfulness, regardless of religious confession or political outlook. Certainly, conservatives have sinned against gratitude in insisting that those who succeed in life have only their own resources and initiative to thank.
President Obama was onto something in his ill-phrased criticism of business people — the infamous “You didn’t build that” remark. He had been trying to express a simple truth about how we build on the accomplishments of others and the shared patrimony of the nation. Unfortunately, he succumbed to his usual high-handed and dismissive tone, and came off sounding disrespectful of effort and sacrifice.
Liberals have sinned against gratitude by encouraging the mindset of entitlement. Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of our proliferating Welfare State is that it tends to keep those who receive public assistance from experiencing gratefulness, and that’s a pity. Feeling grateful for the help of others is a blessing that’s not only edifying spiritually, but can help to lift one out of discouragement and the assumption that failure and frustration are inevitable.
In my own life, I have much to be thankful for…
- That my parents were able to provide me with an education and some unique childhood enrichments.
- That my wife and I have enjoyed a 47-year marriage in relatively good health, free of major tragedy, if not without some struggle.
- That we were able to bring our kids to adulthood healthy and whole; continue to share close relationships with them; and have lived to see our grandchildren.
- That we’ve had varied — not to say erratic — careers that have nonetheless provided interesting experiences and a measure of material comfort.
- That we’ve found a spiritual home in the Church, after some wanderings on both our parts.
These are all tremendous blessings.
Who could ask for more?
So this year, when it comes time for Thanksgiving dinner (with or without the NFL blaring in the background), let’s all take a minute to offer a well balanced prayer of gratitude, perhaps following that four-part ACTS formulation.
And yes, yes, for all my agnostic / atheist / spiritual-but-not-religious friends — you don’t really have to pray. Simple acknowledgement of the vital role which thankfulness plays in building human community will be quite acceptable for now.
And one more thing: Share your thankfulness with the people you love. They might be even more grateful for that.
(NOTE: Whenever I post this essay people wonder who the sweet little Catholic schoolgirl in the First Communion dress might be. It’s my wife, Kathy.)